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January 13, 2003
Russia: A Cold Snap and Snapping Tempers
Russians call for change as heating systems collapse in the coldest winter in years--but the call for reform remains muted.
By Sergei Borisov

ULYANOVSK, Russia--In the harshest winter in decades, more than 25,000 people across Russia spent the New Year and Orthodox Christmas in a deep chill after hot water pipes, built in the communist era and left unrepaired for years, froze up and then burst. By Sergei Borisov

With temperatures reaching -30 and even -40 degrees Celsius, many people have also been deprived of light and gas after the gas began to condense. The cold snap has added urgency to long-standing complaints that Russias decrepit heating system is no longer adequate to cope with the countrys habitually cruel winters, and that, without rapid change, the system will collapse.


Fourteen regions suffered serious breakdowns. Most affected by the bitter cold were the republics of Karelia and Komi, and the Leningrad and Novgorod regions, all of them in the northwest of the country. The Gulf of Bothnia and the Gulf of Finland have reportedly almost completely iced over, and icebreakers had to be dispatched to St. Petersburg to enable ships to emerge from the harbor.

In Moscow, six homeless people have frozen to death, and in the Far East, seven people died on the island of Sakhalin after three days of heavy snow cut it off from the mainland. Since mid-September, over 250 people have died as a result of the cold.

The savage weather cooled seasonal celebrations, if not quite putting them on ice. With just 10 minutes to go before the New Year and with the temperature outside at 45 below zero, the town of Muezersky in Karelia found itself without electricity, heat, and water. Nineteen apartment blocks housing 600 people, a hospital, and two hotels were affected. Similar reports came in from other parts of the republic, which neighbors Finland, and from elsewhere in the country.

In all, nearly 6,500 people in Karelia have found themselves without heat. Fifty-five people were hospitalized for hypothermia or frostbite, and in three districts a state of emergency was declared.

Attempts to repair the heating systems immediately on New Years Eve were hampered as many employees were already drunk.

Electric heaters are little help in such extreme temperatures. In the town of Valdai in the Novgorod region, despite electric heaters, temperatures in many flats were below zero. On the eve of Orthodox Christmas, 6 January, with the temperature at 30 below, the heating system for 24 apartment blocks failed, and doctors had to evacuate 133 patients from the local hospital.

Even the small comfort offered by heaters would have been denied to inhabitants of St. Petersburg flats if the citys governor, Vladimir Yakovlev, had had his way: He called on them not to use the heaters. The city has reported severe damage to its pipes.


Local services have been trying to restore heat and install new radiators, calling in volunteers to help their low-paid employees and calling on the Kremlin for financial help. Moscows response has been to send in army units and Emergencies Ministry employees.

However, the pace is slow. By 12 January heat had been restored to only nine of the 24 affected blocks in Archangelsk, and, nationwide, 124 blocks in 11 regions are still without heat.

Anger is widespread, and people in some villages of Karelia have even blocked roads in an effort to draw the attention of authorities--and to emphasize the lack of help they have received. There is little sympathy for the local authorities. People argue that if repair work had been done in the summer, there would be no need to do so in freezing temperatures.

President Vladimir Putin took a similar tack after returning from a skiing holiday. Russian TV channels showed Putin castigating local leaders over the phone. Your region should be prepared for these kinds of temperatures, Putin reportedly told Karelias President Sergei Katanandov. It's a northern region, after all.

Putin gave Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov responsibility for helping the regions, and Kasyanov echoed Putins line. Speaking in Murmansk on 9 January, he said municipal authorities were responsible for local utilities. If local officials do what they must, Moscow is prepared to help, he said. If not, Moscow will have to take emergency measures, a political black mark though not a threat.

In October, Kasyanov had suggested a crisis was pending, saying that the situation was close to critical in some regions and that, overall, the regions were 20 percent less prepared for winter than they had been the previous year.

While communal services and local authorities are being held responsible for freezing citizens and icicles on radiators in flats, officials in Russias energy monopolies have also been held responsible for poor preparation for cold spells. Anatoly Chubais, the head of Unified Energy Systems, Russias monopoly supplier of electricity, said on 16 October 2002 that his company was fully ready for the winter and that there would be no energy crises.


While most regions in Russia have not suffered such serious breakdowns, there have been complaints about poor heating across the country. The underlying cause of the current disaster appears to be a deterioration in the quality of Russias housing stock and its heating infrastructure.

Reform of both the centralized housing and municipal utilities system has been on the agenda since at least 1997 and has Putins verbal backing.

However, there has been no progress in transforming the worn-out and subsidized heating sector since the last harsh winter, two years ago. Instead, the sector has continued to deteriorate. The chairman of a state building committee, Nikolai Koshman, told Izvestia on 9 January that in 2000 there were six regions in Russia whose utilities were in critical condition. The number has since leapt to 18 or 19.

The committee is due to come up with a proposal to privatize local utilities this year.

Price deregulation could prove a major obstacle. At present, government officials say consumers pay for only 70 percent of services. The rest is paid for by the state.

Many Russians fear, though, that the companies would pocket the price rises and not improve the quality of services. However, even without reform, prices are going up. Experts forecast that the cost of utilities could increase in two years by 30 to 40 percent.

Initially, government officials envisaged a reform in which the population would cover all the utilities costs by 2008. Then the idea was dropped. However, the government now says that, instead of subsidizing the sector as a whole, it will subsidize only Russians who cannot afford to pay for themselves.

Even if the reform is approved, question marks remain about the time frame. Koshman cited the Moscow neighborhood of Kurkino as a good example. There, a decentralized small gas boiler-house run by one man heats flats for 90,000 people. However, Arkady Cheremetsky, the mayor of Yekaterinburg, told Izvestia that in order to change all the heating systems in the city, we will need 20 years."

The more immediate question is whether reform will be approved. Yabloko, a liberal party, says the government is moving ahead with reform too slowly. Ordinary Russians too appear afraid of reform and higher prices. And deputies in the State Duma, perhaps with an eye to elections set for December 2003, in November 2002 rejected the first reading of a package of reform bills.

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