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Moscow in Chaos Amid Blackouts

Times Staff Writer

An explosion at an electricity substation triggered extensive power outages in Moscow and nearby cities Wednesday, throwing the capital’s public transportation into chaos and disrupting work at factories, hospitals and other institutions.

President Vladimir V. Putin quickly accused top management of the state-run power monopoly of being too focused on restructuring the firm at the expense of running it properly. The corporation, Unified Energy System of Russia, is headed by Anatoly B. Chubais, one of Putin’s political opponents.

“I think it happened due to insufficient attention on their part to everyday activity of the corporation,” Putin said in comments reported by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass. “Early data indicates there were some other problems besides worn-out equipment, although it’s true that it had not been modernized since 1966.”

Prosecutors announced they were opening a criminal investigation of the firm’s top management on suspicion of negligence and abuse of office.

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Other detractors of Chubais, who still carries significant weight in pro-democracy circles here, quickly joined a chorus of criticism. The inquiry is widely seen here as an indication that the mishap might be used to push Chubais out of his job or weaken his political influence.

In recent years Chubais has concentrated on his work at Unified Energy System and avoided frequent or strong criticism of Putin. But he is still a leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces party, and has spoken out against Kremlin policies.

Chubais said at a news conference that about 2 million people were affected by the rolling power failures and issued an apology.

“Unified Energy System and myself, as its CEO, are fully responsible for today’s accident,” he said, noting that he was aware of Putin’s criticism. “It is a matter of our conscience. Nobody is going to put the blame at somebody else’s door.”

After the electricity breakdown, the control systems for Russia’s nuclear missile forces instantly went to backup power, Col. Gen. Yuri Baluyevsky, chief of general staff, told reporters.

“Control of the armed forces was not lost,” he said. “The central command post of the Strategic Rocket Forces automatically switched to emergency electricity supplies at 11:11 a.m. Moscow time.”

Thousands of passengers on Moscow’s extensive subway system were stuck inside trains for varying periods. Of the capital’s 1,581 traffic lights, 236 were reported out, causing serious traffic jams in the city and on its outskirts. Several meat-processing plants were paralyzed by power failures, and Itar-Tass reported that one food company official predicted a loss of more than $100,000. The power failure also shut the stock exchange.

But as of Wednesday evening no deaths or injuries had been reported as a result of the rolling blackouts.

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Vyacheslav Ivanov, 64, a pensioner from Yekaterinburg, about 875 miles east of the capital, found himself stuck outside one of Moscow’s functioning subway stations, frantically trying to catch a flight home. Thousands of people whose travel plans had been disrupted were crowded into the area, and he had been unable to get a taxi for nearly an hour.

Ivanov said he was in a subway station when the power failed, and reached the surface by walking in the dark through one of the system’s underground passageways.

“We had to use flashlights in order to find our way,” he said. “My only wish is to get out of here as soon as possible. Our plane leaves in 30 minutes.”

Rumors spread that the blackout had been caused by a terrorist attack. But Energy Minister Viktor B. Khristenko told reporters it was caused by a fire and explosion overnight at an electricity substation. Authorities said there was no evidence of sabotage or of an attack. By 8 p.m. Wednesday, electricity had been restored to about half of the affected areas, Itar-Tass reported.

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Sergei Yefremov, 52, an office worker who spent more than three hours outside a subway station waiting for promised special shuttle buses, complained that authorities had not responded quickly enough.

“They knew about the fire yesterday. First they kept silent, and today they fed us fairy tales,” he said.

Nataliya Vishnyakova, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor general’s office, indicated that a criminal case was being pursued because of the extensive losses.

“It should be borne in mind that the legal rights of a great number of people were grossly violated,” she said in comments reported by Itar-Tass. “The scale of the abuse is hard to estimate at this point, but it is obvious that it is significant. People’s lives and health were put at risk.”

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Some members of the lower house of the parliament said they planned to introduce a resolution demanding that Chubais be dismissed.

“Chubais and his managers are sucking money out of taxpayers’ pockets and don’t do anything to reequip energy facilities,” Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov told reporters. “I think that such managers should be driven out with a stick.”

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Yakov Ryzhak of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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