The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Energy crisis in Russia:
Cold and fraud kill

Apr 2, 2001

(This article is translated from a recent issue of the French Trotskyist weekly Lutte Ouvrière, Workers Struggle.)

The prime minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, dismissed Alexander Gavrine, the minister of energy after people in the region of Primorye, near the sea of Japan, died of the cold. Putin also forced the governor of the Primorye region to resign and sent a warning to the Russian energy monopoly chief, Anatoly Chubais. Chubais was the advisor on privatization for the previous administration of Boris Yeltsin.

Ice in homes

This drama was played out at the highest levels of the Russian bureaucracy. With the entire region frozen since autumn, the situation in Primorye took a sharp, even explosive turn. There have been demonstrations in cities, massive blockades on the rail lines, take-overs of official buildings. So it has been difficult for the federal authorities to ignore the problems.

This past year the Russian Far East experienced an early harsh winter, with shortages of fuel, gas and electricity. There are villages lacking any light or heat; there are adults closeted in their homes because workplaces were closed; there are children at home because classrooms were freezing. Throughout the region, the situation is hardly less frightening: public services are interrupted if they exist at all. Public housing, when it has heat, keeps the temperature around 50 degrees. In other places, the thermometer doesn't even reach zero, and people take refuge in front of their ovens for heat. Supplies are so scarce that malnutrition and hunger are already hurting the most vulnerable –the old and the young and the sick. The authorities refuse to publish any statistics, of course, but we know that people have died from this cold.

Economic chaos

This is not a "natural catastrophe." Similar weather conditions existed in other years. In Central Russia, as a newspaper reported, where the climate is milder, "people in the region of Samara have frozen to death in winter," thanks there also to what authorities did or didn't do.

Frost in people's homes reflects the general economic disorganization since the Soviet state has broken apart. The state has been incapable even of assuring that heat reaches all regions regularly.

Businesses are on the brink of financial disaster, unpaid by the state or by their clients. Administrations receive no tax money; state treasuries are empty. Government authorities cannot organize the production of electricity, gas and heavy fuel oil because of the financial mess in the energy sector. For several years, the public sector charged with furnishing electricity has found itself caught in a problem without a solution. The state must furnish energy to those who either are unable or unwilling to pay for it –a problem made worse by the fact that the Russian state not only does not keep order, but also is responsible for aggravating this chaos.

The state, or rather the men who make up its apparatus, are pursuing other ends, like profit. Putin is up against the same problems Yeltsin faced. He is supposed to prevent the economic disintegration of the country and to guarantee at least some respect for the law. Yet he can't get businesses to pay their electricity bills. He can't force the electricity monopoly to deliver supplies because they are not being paid regularly by their clients. Nor is the state itself able to pay the bills.

The break-up of the state

At each level of the state is the same vicious circle resulting from the egoism at the top of the Russian bureaucracy. In Primorye, the governor denounced the supposed "energy mafia" (the central monopoly of Russian energy, the EES, started by Chubais). The governor accused it of cutting off the supply; he claimed the energy monopoly is ready to let people die of the cold in order to make money from exporting the energy supplies. Chubais responded by informing the media of certain little deals done by friends of this governor, deals involving the purchase and sale of fuel oil for profit. Chubais said the friends of the governor are the ones forcing a rise in energy prices, further freezing the population of Primorye.

What's worse is that Russia has no lack of energy: oil, gas, electricity. What it has is the break-up of the former Soviet state at the highest levels, thanks to the boundless greed and rivalry of the top bureaucrats.

Actually, Putin didn't exactly dismiss the governor of Primorye; he simply allowed the governor to arrange who would be his successor. Since the governor's slogan in the last election was, "I am the region," we can well imagine how his own chosen successor will act. He and his pals will continue to rip off the region for any spoils they can obtain, as they have for the past eight years, first under Yeltsin, now under Putin.

Putin may love seeing local governors and other big-wigs submit to his authority. But even when their greed actually threatens a number of people with death, he cannot rein them in. He may have thrown out a minister of energy and a governor, but there's still a lit fuse waiting to explode in Russia.