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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Dismisses Energy Minister

Heads started rolling Monday over a months-long heating crisis in the Far East with President Vladimir Putin firing the energy minister and announcing the resignation of the Primorye governor.

Putin also ordered his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, to raise the issue of management conduct at the next board meeting of state-controlled power giant Unified Energy Systems, a move that could spell the ouster of UES head Anatoly Chubais. Voloshin is the government’s representative to UES.

Opening a government meeting Monday, Putin called for "tough personnel decisions" to tackle the Far East power shortage while acknowledging that "looking for scapegoats is pointless."

Putin then announced that he had demanded the resignation of Energy Minister Alexander Gavrin and signed a corresponding decree accusing the minister of "a chronic inability to solve the sector’s problems."

"I raised the issue of the energy minister’s resignation and Gavrin made the corresponding declaration," Putin told ministers in televised remarks.

Gavrin is the first minister to be fired by Putin in his one-year presidency.

Putin also told the ministers that he had spoken by telephone with Primorye Governor Yevgeny Nazdratenko about the chronic shortage of power in the Far East region Monday morning and accepted his resignation.

The Kremlin has repeatedly ordered regional officials to restore power supplies to Primorye, where tens of thousands of residents have been left without heat in the coldest winter in 50 years. The crisis started early in November as temperatures dropped to levels of minus 50 degrees Celsius in some areas. Decrepit heating pipes then burst, forcing residents to use electric heaters. The huge demand for electricity, in turn, drained what power supplies the region had.

Putin sent Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu several times to the Far East to try to sort out the crisis.

Then last week the president declared that both local and federal authorities were to blame for the shortage, singling out the Energy Ministry, the Primorye administration and UES.

Putin told Voloshin at the government meeting Monday "to strengthen the management team in the company" at a UES meeting set for April 28.

Observers said the order could be a sign that Putin is giving Chubais two months to get his act together.

"It appears that Putin is sending Chubais a signal to put the house in order by the end of April," said Hartmut Jacob, vice president of Renaissance Capital. "After all, the story is about people freezing in winter. Who is to be blamed is less of an issue."

Should Chubais push to solve the power problem in the Far East, he may keep his job, Jacob said.

"I don’t think Putin is unhappy about Chubais to the extent that he is going to sack him," he said.

Chubais, who has faced speculation about his dismissal several times before, said Monday he was willing to accept any decision regarding his post.

"The president is entitled to make any personnel changes in the UES management team," Chubais told reporters Monday, Interfax reported.

The fresh pressure is bearing down on Chubais just days after a UES board meeting agreed to amend the company charter to allow the CEO to be fired by a simple majority vote instead of a 75 percent vote.

It was not clear Monday who would be tapped to steer the Energy Ministry after Gavrin, who had held the post for eight months.

Market sources pointed to Deputy Energy Minister Alexei Miller as a likely successor. Miller, 39, hails from St. Petersburg, where he worked from 1990 to 1996 as deputy head of City Hall’s foreign relations committee. Putin, who chaired that committee, brought Miller into the Energy Ministry in July 2000.

Miller refused to comment Monday.

But it will be a weakened ministry that awaits the next minister. Without specifying details, Putin on Monday ordered that more responsibilities be taken out of the Energy Ministry’s control.

"The ministry has lost such a share of its playground in recent months that it does not really matter who heads it," said Steven Dashevsky, oil and gas analyst with the Aton brokerage.

Meanwhile, former deputy natural resources minister Valentin Shelepov was appointed a deputy energy minister Monday.