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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nazdratenko Leaves Primorye a Beggar for Coal

RAZDOLNOYE, Far East — A bitter wind grasping at his pant legs, Nikolai Yudin raised one arm outside the boiler room at the Razdolnoye Building Materials Factory, a red-brick husk aged well beyond its 42 years, and pointed emphatically at — nothing.

"There is supposed to be 6,000 tons of coal here," he said, staring contemptuously into a broad, shallow pit beside a rail spur, barren but for a thick coat of snow. "We need 6,000. We got 123."

Yudin may be the most unpopular man in Razdolnoye, a desolate town of 13,000 in the Primorye region, about an hour's drive from the Pacific coast.

The bankruptcy administrator of the building materials factory, he is responsible not just for making bricks, the town's raison d'?tre, but also for supplying the radiators of 2,000 residents with hot water pumped from the factory's boiler.

This winter, he has done neither. Primorye's sputtering power plants have too little coal to generate more than a trickle of electricity, and Yudin's factory gets less than a third of what it needs to stay open.

The region-wide shortage has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, brought unspeakable misery for tens of thousands and killed scores. And not for the first time: In a nation that boasts the largest coal reserves on earth, Primorye has run short of fuel for four straight winters, this time desperately so.

In the worst winter in half a century, with temperatures down to minus 50 degrees Celsius, Primorye's four electrical generating stations have resorted to rolling blackouts, plunging even big cities like Vladivostok into darkness and chill for as long as 12 hours a day.

In smaller towns, coal shortages have forced cutbacks and shutdowns in the hundreds of boilers that supply hot water to apartments, spreading an epidemic of burst pipes and frozen taps.

At least 28 people have died from exposure or from fires and asphyxiation caused by faulty heating devices. Children have gotten frostbite; schools have closed; whole villages have lost heat, power or both for weeks.

The boiler at Yudin's factory burned its last good heating coal Dec. 28. When a pump broke two weeks later, already-chilled radiators began freezing and bursting all over town.

The townsfolk are livid.

"The director of the plant there said, 'To hell with your part of town; we have to make bricks,"' Taisia Zhorina, 62, a retired brickmaker, said malevolently as she stood in her frigid apartment, swaddled toe to crown in winter wear. "He has a huge house, all kinds of heaters. He can do what he wants."

In fact, all Yudin wants is more coal. But since November there is hardly any to be found, neither in Razdolnoye nor the rest of Primorye, the maritime region whose spectacularly disheveled capital, Vladivostok, punctuates Russia's southeastern tip.

Coal Searching

The Kremlin shoveled money into Primorye when power to its 2.2 million residents first began fading three months ago, to little visible effect. Only recently did it mount an all-out rescue effort, marshaling emergency trainloads of coal and massing an invasion of plumbers and pipefitters to rebuild broken heating systems.

That is already getting the heat and lights back on. But it will not solve Primorye's real crisis: a collapse of basic services in what many call the most mismanaged, neglected and corrupt of Russia's 89 regions. For that, many blame the administration of the ousted governor, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who was forced to resign last week by President Vladimir Putin.

Since 1993, Nazdratenko, 51, ruled Primorye almost as if it were independent of Moscow — which, being almost 10,000 kilometers and eight hours away by jet, it nearly has been.

Under the beneficent eye of President Boris Yeltsin, who gave regional barons free rein in exchange for political support, everything from the courts to industry and media fell under the sway of Primorye government officials. Crime flourished, and vast sums of money simply vanished.

"There is no energy or fuel crisis there," Putin's representative to the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky, told reporters in December. "It's a crisis of power. It's a crisis in the regional leadership's understanding of how the fuel and energy sector should be run."

On Feb. 5, Putin reacted sharply, firing Russia's energy minister and securing Nazdratenko's resignation. Skeptics doubt that will change matters much: Nazdratenko's successor, his deputy governor, Konstantin Tolstoshein, is by most estimates as politically ruthless as his predecessor and was the object, in the late 1990s, of an inconclusive corruption inquiry by the federal police.

Nazdratenko said fault lies with a stingy Kremlin. His allies even blame the World Bank, which financed the closing of unprofitable Russian mines in the 1990s.

Moscow does owe Primorye millions of dollars for services from fuel for the Vladivostok anchorage of the Russian navy to reimbursements for social services. But the arrears would hardly pay to heat the region.

As for the World Bank, Primorye indeed had 17 mines shut during the restructuring, and citizens and officials alike complain bitterly that the closings are the root of the energy crisis. But in fact, Primorye's coal production has climbed by a million tons a year since the restructuring began in 1994.

So why, when there is coal, coal everywhere in Russia, does Primorye have not a lump to burn? Why did Yudin's brick factory need 6,000 tons of coal and get only 123?

To Yudin, the answer is simple: "It went to Vladivostok."

Of course, it is not simple at all.

Cold Hard Cash

For starters, take Russian heating systems. Only the wealthiest homes have furnaces. Most heat is supplied by electric power plants in big cities or by factories and communal boilers in small towns, via unsightly spaghetti networks of steam and hot-water pipes snaking along and over streets into the apartment buildings where most Russians live.

In Soviet Primorye, that was a simple, one-size-fits-all way of keeping people warm. No one kept track of the cost. In capitalist Primorye, warming people is both a state duty and a multimillion-dollar enterprise — and there is the rub.

Yudin's brick-factory boiler has a government contract to burn up to 150 tons of high-calorie coal every day. The coal is supplied by a communal services district whose duty is to keep the utilities humming in the Razdolnoye area.

But that district is only a conduit to Nazdratenko's former government, which actually buys the coal — or is supposed to. This winter, the region fell far behind on purchases, forcing Moscow to step in with emergency aid.

Primorye Ugol, the region's big coal company, stood ready, under contract, to ship 27 railroad hoppers of coal — 1,500 tons — every day.

"We warned them for months that we won't send them a single ton of coal until they pay," Anatoly Vasyanovich, the general director, said in an interview. "And we didn't load a single ton until they paid, about 10 days ago."

The region says it cannot afford to buy enough coal and high-priced oil for its needs. But there are other theories. Three years ago, the local newspaper Vedomosti published what it said was an internal report to the Kremlin alleging that 100 million rubles — tens of millions of dollars — had been looted from state fuel funds by the deputy governor, in league with organized crime. A criminal inquiry petered out when the deputy governor abruptly died.

This year, towns and villages had little or no coal for their boilers. Razdolnoye was so ill prepared that in December Yudin took 3,000 tons of coal reserved for brickmaking and used it to boil water for radiators. In Artyom, a town of 70,000, reserves were about a tenth of what was needed.

Such shortages created a curious ripple effect. Deprived of hot radiators, citizens across Primorye turned to hot plates, tea kettles and space heaters to keep warm. Electricity consumption skyrocketed: At the cold-weather peak in January, consumers were demanding 2,000 megawatts from a grid with a capacity of no more than 1,300 megawatts.

But the generating plants had no coal either. Dalenergo, the company that runs three of Primorye's four power stations, is broke, in part because Primorye politicians held rates artificially low. Even so, the region's impoverished residents owe Dalenergo more than $70 million in unpaid bills.

Dalenergo briefly retaliated in November by cutting off heat to hundreds of apartment houses. Residents protested, and Nazdratenko demanded that the heat go back on.

Dalenergo's leaders — Nazdratenko's political allies — quickly complied. To avoid a total shutdown, Dalenergo has rationed power, blacking out parts of its grid for hours at a time.

And that created yet another ripple effect. In many towns, some heat comes from oil-burning boilers. Blackouts disable the pumps that feed oil to those boilers, shifting the full burden of heating to coal boilers, which of course already lack fuel.

The net result: Nearly 6,000 tons of coal meant for Razdolnoye went instead to heat, or mollify, the 670,000 residents of Vladivostok.

Razdolnoye residents like Zhorina, the retired brickmaker who so bitterly denounced Yudin, are still in desperate straits. She said her fifth-floor flat had been without gas since 1993 and without water since 1995. Heat and power have been scare in winter since 1998.

Private Heating

This year, faced with a monthlong heat drought, she and other locals have trekked daily to the woods outside Razdolnoye and cut firewood for the tiny potbelly stoves in their kitchens, trying to maintain at least one tepid room.

Of course, though all of this, some people keep warm without difficulty.

In Vladivostok, in the neighborhood called Sanatornaya, a choice hillside with a breathtaking view of the Pacific Ocean, builders behind a tall green fence topped with spikes are erecting 10 magnificent three-story homes.

Their owners are not a matter of public record, and city officials are still trying to evict a clinic for disabled children to clear more space for the houses.

Not far up the street, next to the governor's mansion, an 11th house is being built. Press reports say that this house, a palace of nearly 3,500 square meters, is to go to Nazdratenko and that some of the other houses will go to the mayor, the provincial prosecutor, the regional police chief and the provincial financial chief.

The second-biggest home, at 2,700 square meters, is said to be reserved for Tolstoshein. It is among the most luxurious of all, with marble staircases, a hot tub, a glass-enclosed winter garden and a wine cellar.

Cold weather is unlikely to be a problem. The home has a private heating system, too.