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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Primorye Governor Resigns

The seemingly invincible governor of the Primorye region, Yevgeny Nazdratenko, submitted a letter of resignation to President Vladimir Putin on Monday, less than a week after the president blamed him for the crippling energy crisis in the Far East region.

Nazdratenko handed in his resignation shortly after a phone call from Putin.

"The president called this afternoon … and during the course of the conversation the governor made his decision to resign," Nazdratenko's spokesman Alexei Kazakov said by telephone from Vladivostok.

The presidential press service confirmed Putin had received the letter and said the resignation would most likely be accepted: "Why not, after all, it was the president who wanted to see Nazdratenko resign," a spokeswoman, who did not give her name, said by phone.

Last week, the president pointed to three major culprits responsible for leaving thousands of Primorye residents with intermittent electricity and heating for almost six months — Nazdratenko's administration, the Energy Ministry and power monopoly Unified Energy Systems.

Their negligence and inadequate response to the problem, the president said, had emptied the region's schools and factories and left thousands sleeping in their coats and chipping ice off the walls of their darkened apartments.

Several analysts linked the timing of Nazdratenko's resignation to a law allowing the president to suspend regional leaders in the event of a criminal investigation against them, which took effect Thursday. Now that Putin has the new powers conferred on him by the law, Nazdratenko could have been forced to choose between voluntary resignation and criminal prosecution.

Nazdratenko resigned from his hospital bed, where he was taken with heart problems last week, on the day he was to come to Moscow to report on the crisis to Putin and fellow regional leaders. His press secretary said at the time the governor had fallen ill because he "took people's suffering too close to heart."

Spokesmen for both the president and Nazdratenko refused to disclose the governor's official reason for resigning. Kazakov said he would give an official statement Tuesday.

Nazdratenko has been accused of mismanaging Primorye's heating and power systems virtually since his appointment as the regional leader in 1993.

Lately, Primorye's power sector has been stuck in a cycle of fuel shortages and mutual debt. Power suppliers say they are owed so much money that they cannot pay producers; producers, in turn, are too cash-strapped to pay for fuel; so fuel suppliers are at a standstill. Although most of the debt is owed by state-run institutions, UES's local subsidiaries have also shut off power to residential areas, factories and schools.

For more than four months, UES and the regional government have been bickering over who's to blame.

UES has accused Nazdratenko of not paying over $120 million in debt to the power grid and of negligence that led to the destruction of the supply network.

Nazdratenko has accused UES, the Cabinet and the media of conspiring to unseat him.

The problem has been snowballing for years, but residents say this winter's crisis became "the worst since World War II," as Primorye's chronic troubles were exacerbated by the record-breaking cold that has hit much of Siberia and the Far East.

Nazdratenko's once unquestionable popularity began to drop as people took to the streets and called for his resignation. When it came, many in Vladivostok seemed happy to see him go.

"My attitude toward Nazdratenko is very negative," said Yevgeny Petrov, 25, a security guard with a private company. Petrov accused Nazdratenko of buying "expensive fuel from his friends" and profiting from it.

"Just look at the cars parked by the administration building," he said. "Each costs at least $40,000. They belong to those local lords for whom Nazdratenko is the boss."

But the charismatic 52-year-old governor still has many residents convinced he was their only defense against a voracious federal center eager to rob the region of its riches.

"I have no idea if he [Nazdratenko] is right or wrong," said Natalya Syuzyumova, a 37-year-old beautician. "I get information from the newspapers, and they might not be giving me a full picture. What is obvious, [is that] he can resist the central power [in Moscow]."

During more than seven years in office, Nazdratenko ruled the region with an iron hand, leaving a political wasteland: Critics said he had quashed practically all political dissent and brutally suppressed the press, while forging a community of bureaucrats, businessmen and gangsters working for each other's profit.

Nazdratenko was often accused of using strong-arm tactics in business dealings as well.

The British honorary high consul to the Far East, Andrew Fox, learned this the hard way in 1999. Fox was forced to leave town in a hurry, after Nazdratenko told him to hand over his 7 percent stake in the Far East Shipping Co. — Russia's largest — and threatened him with imprisonment on spying charges if he refused.

In 1999, Nazdratenko-backed managers took control of Vostoktransflot, a Vladivostok-based refrigerator shipping firm, ejecting the previous manager. The ousted manager's legal adviser was later killed by a bomb planted under her bed at her dacha. Last year, a judge who had ruled against Nazdratenko's allies on numerous occasions, including the Vostoktransflot case, was stripped of her title on corruption charges.

Boris Reznik, a State Duma deputy from neighboring Khabarovsk region who often criticized the governor, called Primorye a "bandit's nest" in a phone interview Monday. "It was one of the most corrupt regions in the country," he said. "The fuel crisis was just a consequence."

"The thievery in Primorye knew no bounds," said Alexei Kuzmin, deputy director of the Institute of Humanitarian and Political Research, affiliated with the liberal Yabloko movement.

Kuzmin saw Nazdratenko's resignation as the Kremlin's attempt to get rid of a governor who, although loyal, had become a liability due to the extent of his corruption.

"But before Feb. 1, there was little the federal government could do against him," he said. "He was re-elected before Putin came to power, so they couldn't influence the elections, and after that there was no legal way to remove him."

Until now.

Sergei Markov, who works with the Kremlin-connected Strana.Ru web site, said that the new law giving the president more sway over governors must have been used by Putin as a "deterrent." And Nazdratenko simply read the writing on the wall.

The Kremlin made it clear last year that it would not tolerate the situation in Primorye for long. Last November, the presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District, Konstantin Pulikovsky, threatened Nazdratenko with a criminal case linked to the power cuts. A month later, after meeting with the president, Pulikovsky warned that "harsh measures" would be taken against the governor.

Prosecutors have opened over a dozen criminal cases connected with Primorye's energy woes and one local mayor has been convicted of gross negligence.

Nazdratenko will be replaced by his first deputy, Konstantin Tolstoshein, until new elections to be held in three months. Late last year, Tolstoshein fervently argued that there was no energy crisis in the region despite protests by angry residents left without heat.

It is unclear whether Nazdratenko will run for re-election. Even if he chooses not to, Kuzmin believes his political allies will try to retain power in a region so rich with timber, fur and marine products. But, he added, "it's hard to believe the Kremlin will let them."

Nonna Chernyakova contributed to this report from Vladivostok.