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Russia: A Devil-May-Care Mood Prevails

Moscow, 5 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Russia entered what seems to be the longest winter holiday season of the past few years, a very symbolic event occurred: No sooner did the inhabitants of Ivangorod, a town on the Estonian border, start celebrating the New Year than they were flabbergasted to discover that no water would come out of their household taps. Because of unpaid bills, Estonia had cut the water supply to the town and refused to treat its sewage.

Some basic explanatory remarks about Russian holidays are needed here. If anyone thinks Russians went back to work yesterday (Jan. 4), refreshed after New Year's parties, they are utterly mistaken.

The country actually went out to celebrate at lunch time on Dec. 31 and isn't expected back until next Monday, Jan. 11. First, it was New Year's Eve and then came the following weekend. This Monday was also not a working day as Jan. 2, a traditional day off, fell on a Saturday and the government decided to compensate citizens for the unfortunate coincidence. Today and tomorrow are officially -- but only officially -- working days while Thursday, Jan. 7, is Orthodox Christmas. And then another gift from the government will come -- a non-working Friday to bridge the way to Saturday. Sunday was declared a working day, but it is hard to imagine who will show up.

Actually, this celebratory spirit took over the country as early as the Western Christmas (Dec. 25), and far too many business calls have remained unanswered ever since.

Now, back to that earlier matter -- running water. Russia's Ivangorod is separated from Estonia's Narva by the Narova river, and it's about the sole natural division line between the two. The cities were built as one. The smaller Ivangorod sends all its sewage to and gets one-quarter of its water supply from Narva.

Being small didn't prevent Ivangorod from piling up enormous unpaid water bills.

The water saga dragged on for seven years, that is, ever since Estonia regained independence after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Ivangorod's debts were repeatedly offset by deliveries of Russian goods (primarily energy), or restructured, or forgiven outright. As 1998 ended, Estonia looked at the water debt, now exceeding $1 million, and decided that enough was enough.

Ivangorod stayed without water for just two days: The city administration turned on four artesian water wells, located on Russian territory. The administration has not explained what prevented it from doing this over the past seven years.

Because of the lack of other significant news, the water row was reported by most functioning Russian media, but went largely unnoticed among the public. Russian TV channels have reduced the broadcasting time of daily news bulletins during the holidays and Western TV crews were busy sending pictures of crowds shooting fireworks and pouring champagne all over Red Square.

The comments on the celebrations, suggesting that Russians were defying the economic crisis with their unwary optimism, were challenged by a headline in the last pre-holiday issue of the business daily Kommersant (by the way, most Russian newspapers have ceased publication until Jan. 12). Rather than optimism, the paper described the feeling as "pofigism" -- a colloquial expression best translated as "utter carelessness."

Perhaps one explanation is that after seven years of painful economic transition and the financial crash of last August, even the most active part of the population is exhausted and frustrated. Many seem ready to give everything up and water it down with huge amounts of alcohol -- thanks to the opportunity provided by the season.

The question is whether these frustrated front-runners of Russia's capitalism are now poised to permanently join their less ambitious countrymen, those who gave up long ago or had not even started anything. Those -- like the officials in Ivangorod -- who hadn't quite believed that communism had actually ended and that they should take responsibility for their own well-being.

Back we go to the festivities calendar: A colleague -- a Moscow-based business reporter -- attempted to do a year-end report on the Russian steel industry. He spent five hours calling officials at the country's biggest steel mills. Only two -- Severstal and Magnitogorsk -- answered. The third -- Novolipets k-- called back when the responsible official dropped by his office at the end of the day. Is it a coincidence that, of the entire Russian steel industry, only Severstal and Magnitogorsk managed to maintain production amid the collapse of world markets, and Novolipetsk found a way to minimize losses -- while all other mills saw a plunge in output?

That observation could wake up those early celebrating steel-makers -- along with thirsty Ivangorod administrators. It could, if only they cared.