June 18, 2005
Era of impunity for Russia's regional rulers comes to an end
MOSCOW (RIA Novosti commentator Vasily Kononenko) --A court in the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, Russia's easternmost city, has set an important national precedent. Following a two-year court case, the judges sentenced former Petropavlovsk Mayor Yury Golenishchev to four years in prison. Three of the years, though, are suspended. He was also banned from occupying executive positions in state municipal bodies in the future.
Despite the incredible politicization of this criminal case - the whole Communist Party rose to their man's defense calling the trial a "political reprisal" - the state prosecutor proved that due to the former mayor's negligence Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky was on the brink of a disaster in winter 2003-2004. Eleven schools and kindergartens and half the medical facilities were closed when the central heating broke down in extremely cold weather. Many residential areas were clouded with smoke because people were forced to use primitive wood-burning stoves to heat their flats.
Coincidentally, on the eve of the verdict, the prosecutor's office filed a criminal case against the deputy governor of the Koryak autonomous region (also in Eastern Russia), Mikhail Sokolovsky. He is charged with embezzling state funds allocated for buying coal and repairing central heating systems. As a result of his criminal actions, teams from the Emergency Situations Ministry had to save residents of many regional towns and villages last winter from the effects of the cold weather. Nevertheless, the court of first instance gave him an eighteen-month suspended sentence, which was surprisingly mild, even though it was still a "guilty" verdict.
Both cases are clear examples of complete negligence, to say the least, on the part of regional officials elected by direct vote. Russia's federal authorities had limited means to respond quickly to such emergencies. All they could do was swiftly find budget funds to buy fuel and repair boiler rooms in the affected regions, and use the Prosecutor General's office to send a warning to future offenders.
These two cases became political events on a national scale because this was the first time President Vladimir Putin had dismissed a governor of an autonomous region. Unfortunately, this measure could not help the local residents who had to take abandoned wooden houses apart and set up bonfires with temperatures plummeting to 40 Celsius below zero. In this situation, the problem of effective state governing, instead of being a subject of political discussions, turned into an issue of life and health of people.
From the first glance, court proceedings against negligent bureaucrats are a source of hope. After all, the current precedents ensure that the future offenders will be punished as well. However, it is doubtful that thousands of residents of the Kamchatka region, the Koryak autonomous region, the Maritime Territory or the Ulyanovsk region, who tried to fight the cold weather with bonfires and primitive stoves, will soon believe that Moscow is able to save and protect them. After 15 years of building democratic institutes of power in Russia, it becomes apparent that the famous statement of Boris Yeltsin addressed to Russia's regions, "take as much sovereignty as you can swallow," created chaos and ensured the impunity of regional dictatorships.