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Russia: Cold, Harsh Conditions Grip Far East

  • Russell Working

Vladivostok, 11 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Cold weather, combined with Russia's severe economic troubles, have left tens of thousands of people shivering in their homes across the Far East.

Local authorities in the Pacific port city of Vladivostok have declared a state of emergency, because half the buildings in the city are without heat and temperatures have dropped well below freezing.

Following heavy snowfall on Monday officials said most schools and nurseries had been closed. They added that hospitals will soon have to be evacuated if the situation doesn't improve.

Our correspondent in Vladivostok reports that 600 apartment blocks in the city are without central heating or are being heated at reduced levels due to a combination of fuel shortages, leaks in steam pipes, and bureaucratic infighting.

City officials blame Dalenergo --the local energy supplier-- for the problems. They say it is poorly managed and doesn't maintain its equipment.

Tens of thousands of people in the city of over 600,000 are keeping themselves warm with portable electric heaters and by putting on extra layers of clothing while indoors. Most apartments in Vladivostok are centrally heated by a city-run system. Few people are in a position to use alternative means of heating their homes apart from costly and sometimes dangerous electric heating devices. With no cash to purchase fuel, Vladivostok authorities have also cut down output at three heating plants.

With Russia staggering under its worst economic crisis in years, local, regional, and federal authorities are ill-equipped to deal with the problems in Vladivostok and in other Far Eastern cities from the Arctic Ocean to the North Korean border.

In some cases sewage freezes in toilets; porcelain cracks and maintenance workers struggle to thaw frozen pipes. The overloaded electrical system in some apartment blocks is cutting out due to the heavy use of space heaters.

The situation is similar elsewhere. About 1,500 kilometers to the north Anatoly Makhankov, head of the Federation of Trade Unions of Magadanskaya Oblast, said there has been no central heating for weeks in homes in Magadan because the local energy company can't afford coal. Schools have been closed and a commission from the Emergency Situations Ministry called the predicament a disaster during a recent visit. Makhankov said "People are hostages (in Magadan) because they have nowhere to go".

In the town of Mys Shmidta on the Arctic Sea in the isolated Chukotka autonomous region, 286 people had to be evacuated to an army base last week after the explosion of a heating system that serviced 10 apartment blocks.

This week, officials said that a nuclear icebreaker accompanying a Finnish tanker that carried vital fuel supplies to Chukotka, near Alaska, was stuck in unusually heavy ice. Light wind and snow accompanied by temperatures of minus 28 degrees Celsius were reported in Chukotka early this week.

And less than a month after federal officials flew to Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky on the Kamchatka Peninsula to deal with an emergency fuel shortage, that northeastern seaport of 265,000 is again running short of fuel.

Vera Vlasova, spokeswoman for the Kamchatskaya Oblast Press Center, said that homes have had no electricity for days and their heat has been reduced to save energy. Despite a wealth of natural gas and geothermal reserves, Kamchatka runs its power plants and heats its homes with oil imported by tanker.

Some small villages have been hit even harder. There is no heat in Olenevod, a collective farm village of about 1,000 people in Primorye, the finger of Russia flanked by China, North Korea and the Sea of Japan. Most villagers once raised deer but are now unemployed.

Temperatures of around minus 30 Celsius have kept irate citizens mostly indoors. But last week in Vladivostok, anger boiled over when at least 7,000 people in 29 apartment blocks were left without heat because of a squabble between city and port authorities, which share responsibility for the boilers heating homes.

Hundreds of protesters blocked a bridge in the Egersheld suburb; and when a television crew tried to move its Volga through the crowd, people attacked it, tore off its grill, and nearly succeeded in flipping the car over before police intervened.

Such incidents were an exception, but frustration and anger are spreading in Vladivostok. Sergei Besprozvanny, a plumber with a household maintenance company, said the city and the port had argued for too long over repairs, and now pipes have frozen in exterior hallways and stairwells.

In Besprozvanny's words, "It's the end of the 20th century, and people are flying to outer space (but) we are thawing pipes with a blowtorch".

(Floriana Fossato in the Moscow office contributed to this report.)