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Waiting for Putin

Vladimir PutinSergei Kvitko just wanted Vladimir Putin to fix his gas.

In United Russia's plush headquarters near Prospekt Mira, Kvitko, a 41-year-old mine rescue worker from the Tula region, sat on a couch in a spacious waiting room, waiting in turn to put his complaint at the reception offices for the party's chairman.

"Vladimir Vladimirovich always says that money is being spent on gasification," said Kvitko, who supports his family of five on a salary of 13,000 roubles per month.

But in his mining town in the Tula region, dozens of home owners still have to rely on firewood ­ chopping logs in the cold mornings to start up the stove. "I think he will help.

And if he doesn't, then no one else will give us gas."

Reviving a Soviet-era tradition

It was that reasoning that helped revive a Soviet-era practice of public reception offices in 2008, when Putin stepped down from the presidency and assumed the title of chairman of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party.

And it was that reasoning that had Putin touring single-industry towns like Pikalyovo when crisis struck in 2009, and personally monitoring how homes were being built for fire victims during last summer's heat wave.

During his Wednesday trip, Putin promised visitors at a regional reception office in Kaliningrad to urgently tackle housing and health issues in the area.

Putin cannot, however, be everywhere at once. So he had United Russia mobilise efforts for a venue where any citizen could meet with him by proxy, says Alexei Anisimov, the United Russia official in charge of Moscow's central reception office.

"This was done to solve citizens' problems more effectively, because everyone knows how high the rating of the chairman of the party is, of his influence as a person and his authority among officials on all levels," Anisimov told The Moscow News in his office.

In the first few months, there were queues outside of the building, he said. Since September 2008, when reception offices opened across the country, over 500,000 people applied either in writing or in person, according to the party.

And the number of applications is growing.

Not just pensioners

"We decided to apply here because local authorities did not respond," said one of about five elderly women in the waiting room. The woman, who identified herself as Irina, was there on behalf of her elderly brother, a disabled man waiting to get better housing. "We are being given denials. They say there is no money. It's a vicious circle. We asked for help in social protection, and we were literally told, live as you have lived before, and get the same medical treatment as you have always done."

Elderly pensioners like Irina make up the bulk of the applicants, but there are a growing number of working adults like Sergei, too.

According to United Russia statistics, 54 per cent of applicants are pensioners 55 years and older, while 27.5 per cent are employed.

For Sergei Kvitko, asking Putin for gas isn't only about improving his home, but fixing local officials' mistakes.

In 2007, Channel One reported that gasification was well underway in his mining settlement, Shakhty-22. Gas had been installed in 27 homes, providing over 70 people.

Problem was, Sergei wasn't one of them - and after the initial drive was publicised, no one apparently got around to take care of the rest.

It's not that Kvitko didn't try.

"We've been to regional deputies, we've asked local United Russia offices," he said. "We were told, yes, you're supposed to get gas. But we don't get it. Everyone is surprised that we don't have it. We're supposed to."

The last straw was when one official suggested the residents fix it themselves, he said.

"The institutional mechanisms that were set up to solve these problems are very often powerless," Yelena Gerasimova, director of the Centre for Social and Labour Rights, told The Moscow News. "They wind up acting like consultants, but don't have the authority to actually give orders and solve problems."

She cited the 2009 unrest in Pikalyovo, where unemployed factory workers blocked a highway, and similar protests at the Raspadskaya coal mine after a deadly methane blast last spring.

"They demonstrate that major problems were only solved with the direct intervention of the prime minister," she said. "Things get done only through personal management, not through the official structures that are supposed to take care of these things."

Anisimov, the reception director, acknowledges the importance of Putin's informal clout in solving even small problems like this.

"There is a legal framework regulating how such requests are processed," he said. "But we can go beyond these boundaries using party mechanisms and finance, and, first and foremost our people. We reach officials from another end."


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