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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Power Goes Off in Moscow, 4 Regions

APPeople crowding a sidewalk outside the Dobryninskaya metro station after many metro lines were closed due to an electricity outage on Wednesday.
Power went out in large parts of Moscow and four surrounding regions for several hours Wednesday, and President Vladimir Putin, moving with uncharacteristic speed, bluntly blamed Unified Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais for the outage.

The outage began at about 10 a.m. in the city and spread to the Moscow, Tula, Kaluga and Ryazan regions, leaving between 1.5 million and 2 million people without electricity.

Metro trains came to a stop, running water supplies went off and hospitals and military headquarters switched to backup generators in a rolling blackout.

Power disruptions continued in some areas late Wednesday, but Mosenergo, Moscow's electricity utility, said electricity supplies would be fully restored by morning.

The Prosecutor General's Office opened an investigation into "criminal negligence," and said that the UES chief would be summoned for questioning "within the next few hours."

President Vladimir Putin blamed the accident on incompetent management at Unified Energy Systems, the country's electricity monopoly, and -- in a departure from his usual carefully-considered reactions -- moved abruptly to take Chubais personally to task over his plans to restructure the company.

"It's quite possible to talk about a lack of attention by the UES leadership to the company's current activity," Putin said in televised remarks from the Rostov region, where he was on a visit.

"It should deal not only with the global problems of the company's policies and its restructuring, but also pay attention to its current activity."

There were no reports of accidents at strategic military facilities or federal medical centers, Putin said.

In Moscow, authorities had to evacuate 20,000 passengers from metro trains that stopped in tunnels between stations and rescue 1,500 people stranded in elevators.

Chubais was quick to assume personal responsibility for the outage and apologized for the inconvenience.

"UES and its chairman are responsible for energy supply," Chubais said. "I don't take responsibility off myself."

But he added, "Humanity has not yet learned to live without accidents."

Prosecutors said they wanted to question Chubais as soon as possible. "We understand that he currently is busy with the elimination of the consequences of the accident and restoration of power supply, however immediately afterward -- in the next few hours -- he will be summoned to investigators of the prosecutor's office for an interrogation," said Natalya Vishnyakova, spokeswoman for the Prosecutor General's Office.

In Moscow, the outage had the biggest impact on public transportation and road traffic. Emergency officials said the outage affected six metro lines -- Zamoskvoretskaya (green), Kaluzhsko-Rizhskaya (orange), Kalininskaya (yellow), Serpukhovskaya-Timirzyazhevszkaya (gray), Lyublinskaya (light green) and Butovskaya, a light metro in southern Moscow. It also affected businesses, hospitals and households in the southern, southeastern and southwestern areas of the city.

Electricity supply failed because an electricity transmission substation broke down as consumption began to pick up, a UES spokeswoman said.

In the metro system, many stations were without electricity and stopped admitting people, Interfax reported an unnamed official saying at the city government's headquarters that were set up to deal with the crisis.

Trolleybuses and trams also came to a halt in southern, southwestern and southeastern Moscow, the official said.


People trying to flag down gypsy taxis outside a metro station on Wednesday.

Near the Taganskaya metro station, hundreds of people tried to catch taxis, but demand outstripped the number of available cars.

To ease the traffic jams, city authorities prohibited trucks from coming into the city, while 1,000 extra buses were laid on to provide alternatives to the paralyzed metro system. The buses appeared to bring little relief.

"It's a man-made catastrophe," said Tamara Klimova, a museum employee, after walking out of Belorusskaya metro station and seeing crowds trying to board buses and catch taxis. "I don't know where I'm going to go now."

Many of the employees of Moscow's main post office did not make it to work Wednesday, spokeswoman Irina Mekhanik said.

Many households lost their supply of electricity and water because electricity-powered water pumps went dead in at least three of the city's southern districts.

Twenty-eight hospitals lost electricity, but at least 15 of them were able to use backup generators to keep treating their patients.

Traffic lights throughout the city went off, causing a surge in collisions, Rossia state television reported police as saying. The head of the city's traffic police ordered all his staff to leave their offices and direct traffic.

Commuter trains stopped running between Moscow and Tula, while long-distance trains were several hours late arriving and leaving Moscow.

Restaurants were empty at lunchtime, apparently because staff were unable to cook, or serve clients in the dark. Chefs were sitting at tables on restaurants' terraces, drinking water and chatting.

Storekeepers complained that their ice cream was melting away in their freezers, Rossia television said.

Many workers in central Moscow stood outside their office buildings, talking and smoking, waiting for the power to come back on.

Street underpasses were plunged into darkness, and pedestrians used cigarette lighters to find their way.

The cutoff of Moscow's International Telephone Station No. 9, or MMTS-9, made most Russian and foreign Internet services unavailable. The station handles more than 80 percent of Russia's Internet traffic and most international communications channels, the web site reported an employee as saying.

The Kremlin and the White House government headquarters remained plugged in, said Viktor Khrekov, spokesman for the Kremlin property department.

Outside Moscow, electricity went off in 24 towns of the Moscow region, and in the Tula and Kaluga regions.

The outage was caused by a fire late Tuesday that damaged a switchboard at the Chagino electricity transmission substation in Kapotnya, south of Moscow, said UES spokeswoman Tatyana Milyayeva. Repairmen worked overnight to fix the equipment but the switchboard failed as the city's electricity consumption grew Wednesday morning, she said.

The equipment -- installed in 1963 -- could have worn out, she said.

The city's other transmission substations became overloaded, causing them to automatically shut down one after another, Milyayeva said.

Chubais also blamed the record heat for the accident, but he did not clarify how hot weather might have been at fault.

The power supply was partially restored in late afternoon after Mosenergo halted the automatic shutdown process and began using a backup power station.

Vladimir Resin, first deputy mayor of Moscow, said the electricity supply to all households would be restored by 8 a.m. Thursday and to the metro system and trams and trolleybuses two hours later, Interfax reported.

UES board member Andrei Trapeznikov said the fire might have been caused by a short circuit.

Electricity first went off in the city's southern areas of Kapotnya, Marino, Biryulyovo and Chertanovo at 11 a.m., emergency officials said.

Energy and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko said there was an explosion at the Chagino station on Tuesday, but Mosenergo denied this.

"As far as we know, there was no explosion," Mosenergo spokesman Mikhail Korotkov said.

The Defense Ministry's Space Forces and Strategic Missile Forces facilities also switched to power generators to ensure combat readiness.

But the General Staff suffered a two-minute break in power late Tuesday, RIA-Novosti reported chief of the General Staff Yury Baluyevsky as saying.

"To speak honestly, yesterday there was a slight glitch from 9:45 p.m. to 9:47 p.m. at the Central Command Post of the General Staff," he said, adding that the outage probably happened after the Chagino substation caught fire late Tuesday.

In the Tula region, the Orgsintez chemical plant discharged a cloud of toxic nitrogen dioxide gas into the air because of a break in the electricity supply, Interfax reported. The cloud was moving toward Tula, and people in the city were initially advised to stay at home and keep doors and windows shut. Regional authorities later said the gas cloud had quickly dispersed.

The Prosecutor General's Office said later in the afternoon that it had opened a case of "criminal negligence" against UES management, including Chubais.

If tried and convicted of this offense, company officials could be fined up to 120,000 rubles ($4,300) and be sentenced to either forced labor or a prison sentence of up to three months.

Political parties appeared quick to scent blood, with the nationalist Rodina party demanding that Chubais resign.

Yabloko, a liberal rival to Chubais' Union of Right Forces party, went further, saying that both Chubais and Mosenergo chief Arkady Yevstafyev should resign.

For United Russia, Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska joined the chorus, calling for Chubais to be fired.

But analysts said it was precisely the Cabinet's backtracking on power sector reforms that had held back the development of the power grid, and thus set the stage for the outage.

"I hope this will serve as a wake-up call to speed up privatization and liberalization of tariffs," said Natalie Tibayeva, utilities analyst at United Financial Group.

Government caps on utility tariffs, and thus UES's profits, coupled with the stalled privatization of generation assets and UES's restructuring, has removed incentives to invest in the power sector, analysts said.

"Unless we have a free electricity market, no one will feel the need to invest in assets and equipment," said Alexei Kormshikov, utilities analyst at UralSib bank.

Staff Writers Valeria Korchagina, Alex Fak and Anna Smolchenko contributed to this report.