By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 26, 2005
MOSCOW, May 25 -- A major blackout hit large parts of Moscow on Wednesday morning in the middle of a record heat wave, shutting down the stock market and cell phone networks, trapping thousands of people in subways and elevators and giving President Vladimir Putin ammunition against a political opponent.
Putin scolded the country's electric monopoly for the failure, which was apparently an accident but affected millions of city residents. The company, Unified Energy Systems, is headed by Anatoly Chubais, a controversial economic reformer who is attempting to break it up.
"One can clearly speak of insufficient attention to the daily running of the company," Putin said, according to the news agency Interfax. "You must not only look after general policy problems in the company and its reform, but also pay attention to day-to-day matters."
Chubais, who was deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin and served as co-chairman of an opposition political party, the Union of Right Forces, until 2003, now maintains a low political profile. But he has criticized the prosecution of the former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, whose supporters accuse the Kremlin of orchestrating the case for political reasons.
There were signs Wednesday that Chubais's position at the giant utility could be in jeopardy. The general prosecutor's office said that it had opened an investigation into possible criminal negligence related to the blackout and that Chubais was a target of the probe, according to Interfax. The agency quoted Natalya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office.
"One must not forget that there were gross violations of the legal rights of a large number of citizens," Vishnyakova was quoted as saying. "The scale of these violations is hard to estimate so far, but it's obvious that it is significant. People's lives and health were put in danger."
The outage came as Moscow was staggering under record-breaking heat. The temperature reached nearly 87 degrees Wednesday afternoon, the highest it has been on May 25 since 1891.
Officials with the electric monopoly said increased demand caused by the soaring temperatures may have been a factor in a fire and explosion at an aging substation south of the city, which triggered the outage and forced engineers to shut down a number of other power stations.
Subway officials said about 20,000 people were trapped in or between stations for about an hour when service stopped on four of the city's 11 lines; the system carries about 8 million riders a day. Another 1,500 people were rescued from elevators, according to officials with the Ministry for Emergency Situations.
Svetlana Starchenkova was one of those changing trains when the lights went out. "I got very nervous," said Starchenkova, 27, who feared a terrorist attack had taken place. "It was very dark. People lit their lighters. I even saw real candles."
Thousands of Muscovites were forced to walk or hitchhike home. Russian television reported that both official and unlicensed cab prices rose dramatically.
Above ground, Moscow's routinely jammed-up traffic came to a standstill in southern parts of the city as traffic lights failed and electric-powered buses and trams came to a halt.
The city's main stock exchange closed for several hours, as did thousands of businesses from the city center out to the southern suburbs. Cell phone service was also disrupted.
Chubais said the blackout affected up to 2 million people in the city of 11 million. But he said it didn't compare with the outage in the United States and Canada two years ago, when tens of millions of people were without power.
"The U.S. lost 100 power plants, while we've lost 12 to 13," Chubais said.