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First It Was Eggs. Now Exploding Hot-Water Pipes. The Domestic Headaches Overshadowing Putin’s Reelection Messaging

In Siberia’s Novosibirsk, Russia’s third-largest city, a major hot-water main burst, sending cascades of steaming water rushing through frozen streets and cutting off heating to scores of buildings — and thousands of people — amid Arctic temperatures.

In the Pacific port of Vladivostok, some 3,000 people were left in the bitter cold after an above-ground heating pipeline ruptured, spewing similar volumes of steaming water.

And nine hours to the west, in a string of Moscow suburbs, more than 150,000 people shivered — and complained vociferously — when another municipal heating pipe broke down, with engineers rushing to dig up the frozen ground.

Since January 1, amid a two-week period spanning various holidays, a growing number of towns and cities have reported major problems with heat and hot water.

Russia’s winters are cold. This is not news. Russia’s municipal infrastructure, much of which is Soviet-era and sporadically maintained, is aging. This is not news.

What is news this winter is that it is a presidential election season, in which the incumbent Vladimir Putin is less worried about winning than he is about getting a credible mandate from a Russian populace already anxious about the Ukraine invasion, which will be more than 2 years old at the time of the election.

Anything less than a 75 percent victory in the March vote, with 70 percent of the voting population participating, will be seen as problematic by Kremlin officials, according to multiple press reports.

Voters annoyed by the soaring price of eggs and bananas are likely to be unenthused. A population freezing due to decrepit housing stock and poorly managed municipal infrastructure even less so.

“Unfortunately, the collapse (of municipal services) that occurs in Russia every winter is not news,” Fyodor Krasheninnikov, a journalist and a political analyst, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service. “The only news is that the deterioration in the quality of infrastructure is only accumulating.”

“In a sense, every nation has the government it deserves,” Vladimir Pastukhov, a former Russian lawyer and political scientist, said in a January 10 podcast.

“So generally speaking, I don’t expect that we’ll have any sort of communal riot,” he said, referring to the communal services — heating, trash collection, electricity supply — provided by local governments.

‘A Rather Dilapidated State’

Central to Putin’s intention to seek a sixth term as president in the March election — with the possibility of staying in power until 2034 — is his command of the Ukraine war, which hits its second anniversary on February 24. Public-opinion polling shows Russians continue to support Putin, but there are signs of slipping enthusiasm for, and growing impatience with, the war.

With Russia’s economy shifting focus toward producing more guns and less butter, there’s also growing alarm over domestic pocketbook issues.

Prior to Putin’s nationally televised question-and-answer session in December, skyrocketing egg prices were stoking worries; in some Russian regions, particularly in poorer, far-flung locations, egg prices jumped by more than 40 percent. Putin himself touched on the issue briefly, suggesting poultry farmers were manipulating supplies to net higher profits.

To what degree the Kremlin is worried about exploding hot-water pipes is unclear.

Tatyana Stanovaya, a veteran Russian political observer, said officials in the powerful presidential administration — which oversees much of domestic policy — are paying close attention.

“Any elections (including those awaiting us in March) highlight shifts in relations between government and society,” she wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “And now, in wartime, the stakes are so high that the Kremlin has to scrupulously take into account any manifestation of mass discontent. If it, of course, corresponds to the authorities’ ideas about legitimacy.”

A much-reviled legacy of Soviet central planning, heating and hot water are provided to the vast majority of Russian residences around the nation from municipal heating plants through a network of pipes that frequently rupture and need constant repair.

On January 9, after days of mounting complaints in the Moscow region district of Podolsk and videos of ice-encrusted radiators and gas cooking stoves turned on full blast circulating on social media, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke out, blaming “anomalous” cold for the exploding pipes, but also pointed to the aging infrastructure.

“Of course, despite titanic efforts to update all housing and communal-services systems, some of them remain in a rather dilapidated state,” Peskov said in a conference call with reporters. “These programs will continue. But it is impossible to update all pipes and all housing and communal services systems in 10 or 15 years.”

On January 10, Putin, who last year pledged billions of dollars of investments in municipal services, traveled to Chukotka, the remote northeastern Pacific region that is nine time zones east of Moscow.

The region was coping with minus 30 degree Celsius temperatures when Putin visited, touring local tomato-growing greenhouses and meeting with officials and veterans of the Ukraine war. But he made no public comments about the snowballing heating problems.

A day before leaving, however, Putin spoke with the Moscow regional governor, who had declared a state of emergency after being harangued by angry residents of Podolsk, according to a Kremlin release.

“In reality, I believe the authorities don’t have a big problem here yet; if we are talking about a political problem, and not about the problem of specific individuals, or about a media problem,” Pastukhov said in the podcast, hosted by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a strident Kremlin critic and exiled oil tycoon who was jailed for nearly a decade under Putin.

“The government is reacting completely normally so far,” Pastukhov added. “That is, at first it simply ignored this topic, not allowing it to break into the national information agenda and spoil people’s holiday mood.”

While social issues such as inflation, pension reforms, and military mobilization are keenly felt by the Russian public, the Kremlin normally deals with them by casting blame on lower-level officials and portraying Putin as the solution to the problem — the latest iteration of an age-old Russian political myth of the good tsar and the bad noblemen.

Putin has also called for the nationalization of a Podolsk factory, the Klimovsky Specialized Cartridge Plant, whose boiler plant provided heat to local apartments, hospitals, and other buildings. which is a common arrangement for large industrial facilities around Russia. Law enforcement officials on January 9 detained two top executives at the factory.

The names of the factory executives who were detained were not released. But the investigative website Agentsvo reported the plant had been headed by a former Putin bodyguard named Igor Rudyka, along with Igor Kushnikov, a former top officer in the Federal Security Service, or FSB, who has been accused of involvement in a Moscow organized crime group in the 1990s.

Putin himself was a longtime FSB officer and headed the agency in the 1990s before becoming president.

The plant’s owners, meanwhile, include a Russian-Mexican crime boss as well as the state industrial conglomerate Rostec, according to Systema, RFE/RL’s Russian investigative unit. Rostec’s chief executive officer is Sergei Chemezov, who served with Putin when the two were KGB agents stationed in East Germany.

For many Russians, the revelations about the facility’s ownership structure, and the failure of its heating plant, was a reminder of how opaque and insider business deals frequently leads to crumbling public infrastructure.

‘We Aren’t Living; We’re Just Surviving’

The flooding in Novosibirsk, a major Siberian city located 3,100 kilometers east of Moscow, was just one of the more dramatic example of major infrastructure collapse. The flood swamped cars and apartment building entrances, with steam drifting over frozen streets and parking lots.

Closer to the capital, a group of older Russians in the Moscow region town of Voskresensk took to the social media platform VK on January 8 to make a desperate appeal to Putin.

“We aren’t living; we’re only surviving! We’re freezing!” the group complained. “It feels like they want to wipe our Voskresensk from the face of the Earth.”

Farther away from Moscow, where governors, mayors, and administrative heads are more sensitive to local discontents, several officials rushed to respond, some pledging criminal investigation into the pipeline ruptures. In Petrozavodsk, a northern city not far from the border with Finland, the chairman of the city’s Housing and Communal Services Committee and several other high-ranking members resigned a day after burst pipes left the City Hall freezing.

In the town of Elektrostal, about 60 kilometers east of Moscow, residents kindled a fire in a city park and complained on video of the lack of heat and hot water.

“It’s impossible to stay in our houses,” the women chanted. “We’re freezing!”

In the Tver region, about 170 kilometers northwest of Moscow, residents of the village of Novozavidovsky also published a desperate video.

“We’re dying from the cold,” one woman said. Another woman, complaining about the cold, noted that her husband was serving in the military, fighting in Ukraine “defending our country.”

In the Pacific port of Nakhodka, just northeast of Vladivostok, more than 6,000 people have suffered from plummeting indoor temperatures — on top of recurring problems, locals said.

“Do you think this just happened today? We’ve been complaining about interruptions since December!” one Nakhodka resident, who gave his name only as Sergei, told RFE/RL’s Siberia Realities.

“Everywhere there are constant outages or insufficient heat supplies,” he said. “The prosecutor’s office has already opened 10 investigations against the provider, but so what?”

Source: Radio Libery



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