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Russia: For Voters, Basic Comforts Of Home Still An Illusion

The site of a gas explosion in Kazan on January 9 (ITAR-TASS) Tatyana Odintsova still shudders when she recalls the tragedy that shook her out of bed one night last month. Shortly after midnight on January 9, a massive gas explosion ripped through the apartment building bordering Odintsova's in Kazan, the capital of Russia's Tatarstan Republic.

"The windows suddenly shattered, I felt a shock wave and thought the flat was going to cave in," says Odintsova, her voice shaking with emotion. "I got dressed and ran out. People were screaming for help; I could hear a child crying. Then everything just collapsed, followed by an intense fire. It was horrible, just horrible."

No one in Odintsova's house was hurt. But the blast reduced a whole section of the next-door building to smoldering rubble, killing eight of its residents.

Such fatal gas explosions are sadly common in Russia, whose housing infrastructure is in dire need of repairs. Since the beginning of the year, gas-fueled blasts have claimed more than 30 lives across the country -- and underscored the severe deterioration of housing safety standards in the years since the Soviet collapse.

A string of apartment explosions is unwelcome in an election season, even one as immune to public whim as the March 2 vote is likely to be. After the Kazan blast, federal authorities sought to address the problem; Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov summoned Konstantin Pulikovsky, the head of the state safety agency Rostekhnadzor, to his office.

In remarks broadcast on state-run television, Zubkov ordered him to examine the causes of the blasts and improve security. Pulikovsky was quick to fend off criticism, saying consumers -- and Russia's record-low winter temperatures -- were largely to blame.

"We have reason to affirm that people are using gas stoves to heat their flats," he said. "The most elementary safety measures are being violated."

Desperation, And Danger

What Pulikovsky and other state safety officials have failed to address, however, is why so many Russians use their gas stoves as heaters.

Russia's heating system, which dates back to the Soviet era, doesn't allow people to regulate the temperature in their apartments. While some buildings are so overheated that people open their windows to let in cold air, less fortunate residents must huddle under blankets throughout the winter -- a bitter irony, considering Russia's vast energy resources.

Sonia Asadova is one of the lucky ones -- her flat in Kazan is always well heated. By contrast, her daughter's four-room apartment, located in a pretty, refurbished house close to the city center, is so cold that her family relies heavily on its gas stove for heating.

"My daughter lives on another street, and since last year they have been paying 1,000 rubles [$40] per month for heating. But their flat is cold all the time. When I go there, I need to wear warm clothes," Asadova says. "With the temperatures dropping, they now use gas to heat the premises. When one pays 1,000 rubles, one should get decent service. Last year they had the same problem and called the servicemen, who restored the heating in 30 minutes. This year is different, they keep calling but nobody comes. All day, all weekend, whenever they are home, they use the gas stove for heating; sometime two of the burners, or all four when it's colder. Every time I visit them, the burners are on."

Many don't realize the danger of using gas stoves for warmth. Those who do are often willing to take the risk. Gas is charged according to a fixed monthly fee regardless of consumption; plugging in an electric heater would be significantly more expensive.

'Falling To Pieces'

Heating deficiencies and gas explosions are just one deadly consequence of the widespread government neglect of the country's housing and infrastructure. House fires in Russia kill hundreds of people a year. Last year saw a spate of deadly fires that underscored the miserable conditions of Russian infrastructure. Thirty-two pensioners died in a fire in a Tula Oblast retirement home that had no fire-safety systems; earlier in the year, 61 retirees and medical personnel died in a blaze in Krasnodar Krai.

"Our housing maintenance has not changed since Soviet times. It's actually gotten worse," says Yevgeny Gontmakher, a sociologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences. "Very little was invested in the 1990s and the beginning of this decade. Our buildings are falling to pieces. We have tens of millions of square meters of living space that are simply hazardous. In addition, plumbing and gas pipes have not been repaired for 15-20 years."

Even as existing structures crumble from neglect, newly rich Russia finds itself in the grip of a construction frenzy that is only adding to the strain on the country's aging heating and electricity grids.

The government appears, to some extent, to be acknowledging the crisis. Since a massive blackout paralyzed Moscow for hours in 2005, it has taken steps toward upgrading its power grids. Federal authorities also recently set up a fund aimed at helping regions overhaul dilapidated residential buildings -- some $12.2 billion has already been earmarked. Gontmakher dismisses the fund as a well-meaning, but half-baked, measure.

"Funds are already being transferred to the regions. Regions then distribute the money to specific groups of property owners to carry out major repairs on buildings that are in a particularly dire state," he says. "But there is a condition: flat owners must cover 5 percent of the expenses. This is a lot of money, and people often can't afford it. The majority of people don't have sufficient income to invest in major infrastructure repairs. Laying out pipes and wires shouldn't be the responsibility of lodgers."

Out In The Cold

In some regions, like the North Caucasus republic of Daghestan, power cuts can be so severe that they spark social unrest.

Protesters in Makhachkala

In the regional capital of Makhachkala, angry residents have been staging almost daily street protests calling for the ousting of Makhachkala Mayor Said Amirov as well as the republic's president, Mukhu Aliyev. The blackout, which started in October, currently affects some 10,000 people and has disabled several school and hospitals.

The situation is exacerbated by unusually cold temperatures, which this year have plunged as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius. Local authorities have called for calm, but Makhachkala residents remain angry about a system that has steadily chipped away at even basic rights of shelter and safety.

"They won't give us loans; we have to stand in line just to get a place to live," says Azra Gamzatova, whose flat has been affected by the power cuts. "People are no longer given flats and dachas like in the past. In addition, people have no water, no electricity, no heating. We're cold at home and at work."

The rallies are reminiscent of the countrywide protests staged by Russian pensioners in January 2005 following the monetization of Soviet-era social benefits. Russia's leaders seem to have learned their lesson -- during a recent visit to Daghestan, President Vladimir Putin pledged more than $120 million to revamp the region's most run-down residential buildings.

Political Liability?

Russians are, on the whole, more inclined to take to the streets over social issues than over politics. According to the independent Levada polling center, poor housing is one of the five grievances most commonly cited in Russia, together with low pensions, inflation, bad health care, and pollution.

In a survey carried out last year, just 9 percent of respondents said they were satisfied with their housing conditions and maintenance. As many as 40 percent described their housing maintenance as "bad or very bad."

The recent State Duma elections, which secured a constitutional majority for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, showed that so far, this dissatisfaction has not translated into opposition to Putin's regime. So far, the notoriously long-suffering Russian population seems resigned to be left in the cold. Boris Dubin, a researcher at the Levada center, says this may only be a matter of time, however.

"I wouldn't say that authorities are safe from unrest and that they can react serenely" to housing woes," Dubin says. "The events surrounding the monetization of benefits have shown that the Kremlin is very nervous. It will have to react, and react fast and in a constructive manner. Silence won't do the trick here."

(RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir, Russian, and North Caucasus services contributed to this report.)

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