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Reuters, November 17, 2003

Before elections, Russians feel the cold

By Oliver Bullough

NOGINSK, Russia, Nov 17 (Reuters) - Six-month-old Vika Vikhreva died of pneumonia after three freezing weeks in an unheated house.

Her mother refused to blame the factory that should have paid her gas bills but could not, leaving her district in the Russian town of Noginsk some 70km (45 miles) east of Moscow without heat until the end of October.

"Maybe they could have turned on the heating earlier," said Nadezhda Vikhreva, leaving the sentence unfinished as she leaned on the crumbling wall outside her door and snow fell outside. "But I won't blame anyone. It can't bring my girl back."

As Russians prepare for elections on December 7 and temperatures tumble, a key question occupying voters and the media is the collapsing in frastructure of basic services -- water, heating and power -- in the apartment blocs that house Russia's millions.

Few stories are as tragic as tiny Vika's, who died in late October in the midst of a bitter cold snap, and the media did not hold back. "There is no answer. But answers won't help little Vika Vikhreva any more," roared the popular Argumenty i Fakty weekly.

For weeks television has bombarded homes with images of Vladivostok citizens queuing for buckets of water and inhabitants of the Kamchatka peninsula further up the Pacific coast shivering as their heat stubbornly refused to work.

Major parties standing for election to the State Duma lower house of parliament agree something must be done and that a decade of neglect must be reversed if Russian homes are to be warm during the bitter winters.

But, beyond bland slogans, few parties have hard ideas on how to find money to modernise a rickety system left over from the Soviet period.


"Today the most important question which we have to solve is the housing problem," said Aman Tuleyev, a senior member of United Russia, the political bloc backed by President Vladimir Putin and election front-runner. "We must lower prices."

The crumbling system -- a whole neighbourhood is often heated by badly lagged pipes from one central boiler -- means even high charges for services can barely cover the costs of waste and running repairs.

The Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS), whose deputy leader Anatoly Chubais heads state power monopoly Unified Energy System (EESR.RTS), has plastered posters around Moscow saying: "Communal services reform means competition and low prices."

A working Muscovite family pays around $35 a month for services, which is around a fifth on an average Russian salary. State statistics show prices rose by more than 35 percent between 1998 and 2001, keeping pace with rising wages.

Russians resent paying anything at all for a poor service, and the Yabloko liberal party, one of the smaller opposition parties fighting Kremlin policy in the election, said service costs should be heavily subsidised until the system actually worked.

"Today reform of communal services only involves raising prices," it said in its electoral programme. "The government conducts reform in the interests of the monopolies. We suggest reform in the interests of the people."

But Boris Lisakov, deputy head of Noginsk's administration, is concerned that populist proposals to cut tariffs could leave the system with evenless funding. "The problem is that there is no money. We simply need more money," he said.


See also:

Housing and Utilities Reform

Reuters, November 17, 2003

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