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Russia: Far East Crisis Show Limits Of Putin's Centralization Reforms

President Vladimir Putin has made restoring order in many of Russia's mismanaged regions a key part of his reform program. But, reports Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini, Putin's efforts to centralize more authority in Moscow could prove ineffective in resolving a severe energy crisis and months of salary arrears now crippling Russia's Far East region.

Moscow, 27 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The energy reductions and salary arrears now crippling parts of the Primorye Krai -- a region closer to Tokyo than to Moscow -- in Russia's Far East has left tens of thousands cold, hungry, and angry.

Some area residents -- like the 10,000 inhabitants of the town of Kovalerovo -- are apparently hoping for little less than a miracle from God to solve their problems. They sent an appeal to the Russian Orthodox patriarch Aleksi II begging him, in their words, "to save them from freezing."

While the federal government is looking for those responsible for the crisis in the region itself, local authorities claim the situation has been blown out of proportion by Moscow in order to discredit them.

Energy crises in Primorye, whose capital is the Pacific Ocean port of Vladivostok, have become chronic over the past several years. But this time, the energy shortage also poses a direct challenge to Putin's Kremlin, which has insisted that strict centralization of power is the only way to fight local mismanagement and lawlessness.

Primorye is governed by Yevgeny Nazdratenko, who is notorious for his misrule. At first glance, the region seems a prime candidate for Kremlin intervention to exercise direct authority. But many Russian analysts say that in the case of Nazdratenko, the president has few effective weapons to use in enforcing his promised reforms.

The analysts agree that a combination of recent factors -- such as insufficient fuel reserves, energy cuts due to accumulated regional debts and broken-down equipment -- have helped produce the energy cuts in Primorye. But they also point to more fundamental reasons, like inveterate embezzlement, insufficient regional revenue not compensated by federal subsidies, shady energy deals, and severe rises in fuel prices. At the same time, many analysts hold Nazdratenko -- accused of criminal management and election-tampering -- largely responsible for the region's chaos.

Still, Russian Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin announced yesterday that Moscow would provide the region with additional financing.

For Pyotr Kozma, editor of the East West Institute's weekly regional news bulletin, the Primorye crisis makes clear that the Kremlin's new centralization policy is helpless against autocratic regional governors such as Nazdratenko.

"Actually, the situation there is in a deadlock. I don't know how the central leadership can solve it. Strong tactics won't work."

Three towns in Primorye -- Artem, Kovalerovo and Partizansk, with a total of 60,000 residents -- currently are enduring sub-freezing temperatures while partially cut off from heating. In nearby Ussuriisk, where the heating only works part of the time as well, teachers are on strike to recover six months of largely unpaid salaries. Russian television features daily reports showing regional families in gloves and woolen hats huddled around 19th-century small wood stoves.

Over the past few months, Putin has promised to put an end to regional fiefdoms such as Primorye, where courts, businesses, and police are all under the governor's exclusive orders. Earlier this year, the Kremlin pushed a reform through the State Duma meant to put governors under Moscow's control. Seven Moscow-appointed inspectors, whose powers are substantial and may yet be extended, are out searching for violations in the regions.

But in Nazdratenko's case, the Kremlin did not go much further than a reprimand. Putin's inspector for the Far East, Konstantin Pulikovsky, criticized Nazdratenko for allowing the energy and teachers' wages crises to occur. Pulikovsky also ordered law-enforcement agencies to determine where the money for the salaries had gone and why people in the region had insufficient heat.

Last Wednesday (November 22), special Duma hearings on the energy crisis finished with deputies squabbling and no collective action taken.

According to Kozma of the East West Institute, the Kremlin could push for getting a relatively docile Federation Council -- the parliament's upper house, made up of regional leaders -- to lift Nazdratenko's parliamentary immunity. But Kozma adds, Primorye represents a no-win situation for the Kremlin because Nazdratenko has simply become too powerful. For now, he says, there is no realistic replacement for a man who has total control of the region, "If the local power is replaced there, it will end up a situation where the economic infrastructure will be uncontrollable because it was set up under the authority of only one person -- Nazdratenko. If someone else comes in, he will be sabotaged, and everything will fall to pieces."

Kozma concludes that Moscow is better off being taking a pragmatic approach and seeking to negotiate a compromise with Nazdratenko. Primorye Duma deputy Viktor Cherepkov -- the former mayor of Vladivostok and a long-time Nazdratenko opponent -- goes even further. He says that the crisis in the Primorye actually reveals Moscow's weakness.

Cherepkov notes that the recently passed centralization reform includes a law that allows Putin to suspend a governor if a criminal investigation is opened against him. He says that many governors criticized this law as a potential instrument of blackmail. But in Cherepko's view, it is in fact useless for the time being. That's because the new law can only be implemented when a governor leaves his seat in the Federation Council -- which could be as late as 2002.

Cherepkov also warns that other local bosses may learn from Nazdratenko's example.

"This lack of determination [in Moscow] creates two difficulties for the president. [First,] it discredits him. And, second, it can create in other regions the same malign phenomena as exists today in Primorye."

For that reason, Cherepkov urges even more radical centralization. But Carnegie regional analyst Aleksei Titkov points out that the on-going energy crisis in Primorye -- already in its fourth year -- has as much to do with rusting pipes and rises in energy price as with regional mismanagement.

Titkov says the Primorye crisis shows the limits of present federal policies in a country where local rulers have had years to establish their power. It also proves, he says, that the relations between Moscow, the regions and powerful energy producers are extremely complex and cannot be solved simply by a few new laws on centralization.