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Kabardino-Balkaria Faces a Bleak Winter

Sanctions imposed by the Russian gas giant Gazprom on Kabardino-Balkaria could put thousands of lives at risk
By Cherkes Bek

Schools and hospitals across Kabardino-Balkaria have been closed down as a mounting energy crisis threatens to bring the republic to a standstill.


And local politicians have warned that the lives of thousands of elderly residents could be endangered if local gas supplies are not restored in the next few weeks.


In past years, the republic's communal heating systems have been turned on by October 15 but, to date, only a tenth of municipal boilers are in operation while most people have been without hot water for the past four months. Even in the capital, Nalchik, only nine of the 39 boilers are currently working.


With temperatures in the North Caucasus dropping well below zero, the chairman of the local government, Hussein Chechenov, commented last week that the situation had "all the hallmarks of a natural disaster".


The crisis arose after Russia's Gazprom severely restricted gas supplies to Kabardino-Balkaria in a bid to force private and industrial users to pay their debts.


Over the past year, consumers across Russia have seen gas prices double whilst production has fallen by around 10 per cent. The North Caucasian republics, where average incomes are three to four times less than in central Russia, have been particularly hard hit.


The outlook is so bleak that the Kabardino-Balkarian Parliament has made a special appeal to President Vladimir Putin, arguing that respiratory and pulmonary illnesses are already on the rise and the consequences could be disastrous if the sanctions continue.


So far, the appeal has fallen on deaf ears. Earlier this month, Valentin Nikishin, managing director of Mezhregiongaz and a member of the Gazprom board of directors, commented, "These petitioners have no business rushing off to Moscow and creating unnecessary problems..."


The population of Kabardino-Balkaria is almost entirely reliant on gas for domestic and industrial heating. Although some boilers can also burn oil or coal, the running costs are between seven and eight times higher.


An estimated 700 million roubles ($25 million) would be needed to introduce alternative heating systems across the republic and, although the Nalchik government has invited local administrations to submit their proposals, funds could only be made available by plundering the social sector. And, with the presidential elections in Kabardino-Balkaria only a year away, President Valery Kokov is unlikely to consider such an option.


The other answer is to pay off existing debts to Gazprom which are thought to amount to 150 million roubles, mainly owed by local industry, agriculture and the Kabbalkteploenergo power station.


The crisis has had a serious knock-on effect on the republic's economy which is still emerging from the wilderness of perestroika. Local officials are currently considering a range of measures aimed at helping struggling industries pay their mounting gas bills.


Meanwhile, Gazprom representatives accompanied by units of the OMON special police carry out punitive raids through the republic's residential areas. In the Urvan region alone, around 2,000 families have had their gas supply cut off.


The limits imposed by Gazprom have also resulted in low pressure levels across the central heating system. Consequently gas supplies are often interrupted for several hours at a time - a situation which has already caused a massive explosion in one Nalchik home.


Local politicians complain that Gazprom is utterly indifferent to the problems of private consumers in the Russian Federation. Instead, the company is far more interested in foreign partners who can pay in hard currency and intends to shift its focus to gas exports.


The finance minister of Kabardino-Balkaria, Khasanbi Shaozhev, recently accused Gazprom's local arm, Kabbalkgaz, of worsening the situation by withholding payments from the mother company. The Gazprom corporation has refused to comment on the allegations.


And while the matter is discussed at the highest level, the people of Kabardino-Balkaria face the bleakest winter in living memory, huddled around wood-burning stoves and preparing food on open fires. There is a sense that, instead of crossing the threshold into the 21st Century, the republic has stepped back into the Middle Ages.


Cherkes Bek is a regular contributor to IWPR


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