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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far East Residents Fight for Warmth

VLADIVOSTOK, Far East — An energy crisis that many are calling the worst since before World War II has crippled the Primorye region, shutting down factories, emptying schools and leaving residents without electricity for long stretches at a time.

With temperatures falling to minus 45 degrees Celsius in parts of the finger of Russia on the Sea of Japan, hundreds of thousands of people are spending their days in unheated or barely heated apartments in which the lights click off at 7 a.m. and don't click on again until they wake people in their beds at 11 p.m.

Heating crises and blackouts strike Primorye every year. But the latest electricity crisis has been staggering even in a region where residents are used to cooking on propane camp stoves and lighting their houses with candles.

People's anger is growing. About 200 people who live on Ulitsa Chkalova in Vladivostok blocked the main highway out of town Monday, and demonstrators called for Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko's resignation in front of the regional administration building Tuesday. Protests continued Wednesday, Reuters reported.

"Even during the war, the streetcars were running day and night, industry was working for 24 hours. The city windows were covered, but we always had electricity," said Chkalova resident Nikolai Turkutyukov, 73. "But now, for four days in a row, we had electricity for only three hours a day."

Throughout the region, the catalog of energy woes is beginning to sound like something out of neighboring North Korea. In Vladivostok's Pervomaisky district, 38 apartment blocks went without electricity for 24 hours.

Hilltop apartment blocks in the city have no water because the pumps that force water uphill run on electricity. In the nearby port city of Nakhodka, electricity has been out for 14 to 16 hours per day in schools, homes, clinics and a center for disabled children, where doctors cook food for their patients on gas stoves.

In Arseniev, schools have yet to open this year as temperatures in classrooms hover at around 3 degrees. Around the region, pipes have frozen and burst.

"The energy system of Primorye has collapsed," said Vladivostok Mayor Yury Kopylov in a radio interview.

Prosecutors have opened more than a dozen criminal cases linked to the disruptions of heat and electricity. In Artyom, Sergei Melnikov, deputy mayor in charge of housing maintenance, was convicted of negligence for behavior that led to a month-long heating crisis.

Yet Kopylov and other elected leaders — most of whom are allied to Nazdratenko — have been incapable of taking action or even explaining the outages. Kopylov insists there is plenty of coal and manpower to keep the power plants running, while the energy utility Dalenergo says there is nothing left to shovel into the boilers.

Indeed, a hapless Primorye Regional Duma — dominated by allies of the governor, who successfully conducted a three-year campaign to nullify the elections of many opponents — voted down a minority request to consider impeachment proceedings against Nazdratenko on Tuesday.

On Wednesday, Nazdratenko spokesman Alexei Kazakov accused certain "forces" of trying to use the problem for their political gain. Nazdratenko, he said, is "trying to solve this problem with all his might" and sent his deputy to Moscow to demand help from Unified Energy Systems, the national electricity monopoly of which the local utility, Dalenergo, is a part. A first trainload of coal has already left from Siberia, Kazakov said.

"Of course, we are concerned about the people who come out with their slogans against the regional administration," Kazakov said. "But the majority of clerks in the regional administration are without heat in their homes, so they sympathize with the people."

In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin discussed the energy problems with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on Wednesday. Russian news agencies quoted the Kremlin as saying Kasyanov would hold a meeting with officials from UES.

The Far East region has been hit by scattered outages since December, but the energy crisis reached critical mass last week, when electricity began to be supplied only at night for many. Even boilerhouses were blacked out and couldn't supply homes with hot water for central heating.

Kindergartens are closed and only students in the seventh grade and higher go to school, studying in their coats in schools without electricity.

In the past, the governor was able to use the near-bankrupt Dalenergo as a scapegoat for the city's blackouts, and newspapers were filled with invective whenever lights went out in Vladivostok. But last summer, Nazdratenko installed a crony at the helm and so now is keeping silent.

Mikhail Tsedrik, spokesman for the local power monopoly Dalenergo, said the main problem is growing electricity consumption because of a severe cold snap across Siberia and the Far East.

This has not only forced higher fuel consumption, but has interfered with the supply. In the Chita region of Siberia, the Kharanorsky open mine — Primorye's main supplier — "the cold is so bad, all the mining stopped there," Tsedrik said.