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Russia: Primorye Residents Make Do During Utility And Political Crisis

By Karen Ogden

Vladivostok, Russia; 12 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Gas-powered camp stoves have become an essential kitchen appliance in the far eastern Russian region of Primorye as it falls deeper into a political scandal and energy crisis that has left some households without power for up to 20 hours a day.

Responding to a hunger strike by local miners demanding back wages, the region's administration last week ordered local power company DalEnergo to sell securities, cars and property worth the equivalent of $19 million within a week.

In addition to millions of dollars in rubles owed to mining companies for coal, the energy monopoly owes its 10,000 employees the equivalent of about $24 million. Many haven't seen a paycheck for five months. But with a deadline tomorrow for DalEnergo to sell its assets and settle its debts, DalEnergo hasn't sold a ruble worth of assets and plans to appeal the decree.

It will be the first battle of new DalEnergo director Vasili Poleschuk, who was appointed early this month following a decree by President Boris Yeltsin blaming the crisis on mismanagement by DalEnergo's former boss and Primorye Governor Yevgeni Nazdratenko.

Poleschuk, who inherited responsibility for $370 million worth of debt with his new job, says DalEnergo got into trouble by giving breaks to military plants and other federal customers who won't pay their bills. He said the utility's management believed that that the federal government would cover the shortfalls. It didn't.

"We ended up being unable to pay our workers' salaries for five months and we became the worst enemy of the people," he said. He has gone now to fight his battle in Moscow.

Governor Nazdratenko is alongside. Nazdratenko is defending his political career amidst the energy crisis and a scandal over the ousting of Vladivostok's first elected mayor, Victor Cherepkov. A Moscow court reinstated Mayor Cherepkov last month, raising a fire storm of speculation about the future of the Nazdratenko-backed mayor, Konstantin Tolsteshein, and the fate of mayoral elections scheduled for October 6.

Press reports implicate Nazdratenko in a set-up to oust Cherepkov. The governor's arch-rival in Moscow, Chief of Staff Anatoli Chubais, is expected to use the mayoral scandal and energy crisis as grounds to dismiss Nazdratenko while Yeltsin is down for heart surgery.

In August, Yeltsin gave Nazdratenko until September 15 to stabilize the energy crisis -- a feat which he announced that he had achieved yesterday, in part by transferring 60 billion rubles from DalEnergo to the mines.

Back at DalEnergo's headquarters in Vladivostok today, things were quiet until an announcement crackled over the intercom announcing half-price tomatoes for sale on the street outside. Within minutes, a crowd of employees, wallets in hand, poured out of the elevators and across the lobby to inspect the green, scarred crop bought wholesale from a nearby farm to appease the unpaid workers.