Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dagestan in Blackout Crisis

Protests on the streets of the republic’s capital as claims are traded about who is to blame for power cuts.
By
Residents of the Dagestani capital Makhachkala have been braving temperatures as low as minus 18 degrees Celsius to protest about the persistent power cuts that have made the past month a misery.



The problem shows no sign of being resolved quickly, as various figures in authority blame one another for the blackouts. A criminal investigation has been launched into the reasons for the shortages.



Electricity shortages began in spring 2007, and the first rallies were held in October when some people were left without power for five or six days.



The situation got dramatically worse in the last two weeks of December as power outages became more frequent.



The demonstrations became more political in nature and began taking place on a daily basis.



On December 29, around 20 separate protests were held in Makhachkala, a city which has grown immensely in the last few years and has a population of half a million people.



Protestors blocked the main streets of the city and around 5,000 vehicles, including some ambulances, were left stranded in enormous traffic jams. The demonstrators erected barricades of rubbish bins, building materials and whatever else came to hand.



Drivers who tried to break through the barriers were stopped by protestors, some of whom lay down in front of their wheels. In one incident at a central intersection, a vehicle drove straight at a demonstrator and the car was pelted with stones. Several vehicles including a minibus taxi were overturned.



In a series of clashes between the crowds and police, several people were arrested and between two and six people were hospitalised, according to different accounts.



“Do they take us for fools?” said Aminat Rasulova, who said her house on Kazbekov Street had been without power for five days. “The authorities waited until the elections [in early December] were over and then began switching off the power. We’re fed up with being obedient sheep, and we are all ready to go out into the streets and protest, and to shut down the main roads.”



Another protestor, Makhach Nasibov, who lives in a multi-storey apartment block, said, “We don’t believe a single promise made by the president [of Dagestan, Mukhu Aliev], as we’ve been deceived so many times.



“For some reason the power’s never been switched off in the houses where officials live. So why do we, who pay regularly for electricity, have to put up with this humiliation?”



The protestors released a statement saying President Aliev should be ashamed of himself. “We believed in you but you did not live up to our hopes,” the statement said.



The protests continued over the New Year holiday, with residents of apartment blocks coming out on to the streets on New Year’s Eve.



“We don’t need a mayor or president who can’t guarantee elementary order in their own republic,” said Magomed Dibirov, who took part in this protest. “Why is such a situation possible only in Makhachkala? You won’t see this in any other town in Russia. We haven’t had power for six days; all the food in the fridge has gone off. Maybe I should give it to the president as a New Year present.”



As the year got under way, the protests escalated further, with complaints about heating, water and natural gas supplies.



A source in the Dagestani interior ministry who asked to remain anonymous said there were concerns that the protest mood could get out of control and lead to a “catastrophic” situation.



“A very dangerous situation has developed in Makhachkala,” he said. “We are observing an uncontrollable crowd, and if someone wished to exploit this for their own ends, we can’t say how it would end. There have already been calls for people to smash the city administration building and the Makhachkala electricity headquarters, and even to take officials hostage.”



Kindergartens and schools were closed by the blackouts and even hospitals were affected. Magomed Omarov, the head doctor at the republican orthopaedic centre in Makhachkala, told IWPR that the hospital’s own generator had not been of much use because it was in a state of disrepair.



“Just picture it, a man is taken to hospital with a knife wound, the X-ray machine does not work as there’s no electricity and the patient is in intensive care on an artificial ventilator,” he said. “Sometimes you have to operate a pump by hand.”



Both the city and republican authorities kept silent until January 14 – and even then, they were unable to give assurances that normal power levels would be restored before the end of the winter.



President Aliev placed the blame squarely on the administration of Makhachkala’s mayor, Said Amirov.



“It must be the first time that thousands of people have been left without light and heating as a result of a number of city leaders having an irresponsible, lazy attitude to their duties,” said the president. “The city has been heading in this direction for several years. The neglect of the utilities sector is plain to see.”



The Dagestani government has promised to allocate 132 million roubles (5.4 million US dollars) to refurbish and rebuild the network.



Asked when the electricity would be come back on fully, Deputy Prime Minister Rizvan Gazimagomedov said only, “The weather centre has promised it will soon get warmer, and people will have to wait.”



He added, “If the situation does not change, then it may be a matter of expressing no confidence in the mayor of Makhachkala.”



Experts say the root of the problem is a dispute between the city electrical network which collects the payments and the Dagenergosbyt company that supplies the power.



A source in the city administration told IWPR, “The power-cuts were initiated by Dagenergosbyt because the Makhachkala electrical grid owed it around 500 million roubles [20.5 million dollars]. The supplier later announced that the stoppages would come to an end because the president had issued a guarantee [of payment], and that all complaints should be directed to the city authorities.”



The official said that the situation was exacerbated by poor weather conditions, and by the antiquated infrastructure that could not cope with demand.



Mayor Amirov, a political veteran, blamed certain unspecified forces for whipping up aggressive feeling in Makhachkala, and made it clear he considered the electricity provider responsible.



“The specialists at Dagenergo and those people who gave orders to switch off the power in Makhachkala knew very well how destructive the consequences would be,” said Amirov. “It was done, nevertheless, to carry out a political order.”



The mayor said the system had never broken down before, as adequate preparations were always made so that electricity and heating networks would be able to cope with winter conditions.



“This year the energy people, having received orders to stir up the population against the [city] administration, have decided to mobilise people in the dirtiest possible manner,” he said.



Officials at Dagenergosbyt said they were owed more than 500 million roubles by the municipal grid company, which they held entirely to blame.



City residents complain that they pay their bills and wonder where the money has gone.



An energy expert told IWPR that there were underlying chronic problems with the city’s power network.



“Even if the Makhachkala administration obtained 500 million roubles to pay off its debt to Dagenergosbyt, that would not salvage the situation,” he said. “The main problem in the city is that the power grid is entirely worn out – it’s 30 years old - and it can’t withstand any additional load.”