The resignation of Primorsky Krai Gov. Yevgeny Nazdratenko is a direct consequence of the energy crisis in the region. It is also the crisis' one happy outcome, no matter how awful this may sound.
Nazdratenko has long been a thorn in Moscow's side, and attempts to topple him have been going on at least since 1997. At that time, Boris Yeltsin decided the moment was ripe to bring order to the regions and put their overly independent leaders back in their place.
Primorsky Krai was taken as the starting point for the campaign, since the rampant corruption there had become common knowledge. But the weak Moscow administration proved no match for Nazdratenko at the time the governor refused to let himself be scared.
An influential member of the Yeltsin administration later recalled the whole affair as one of the main mistakes of the time. "We were wrong to start with a strong regional leader like Nazdratenko," the official said. "We should have made an example out of the weak governors, put two or three heads on the line, and only then go after the strong regional leaders."
Yeltsin's successor, Vladimir Putin, perceives no such dilemma, it seems. He doesn't have to decide whose head will roll first, because he's taken the approach of reshaping power entirely.
Putin implemented a new political instrument creating a systemic crisis between the federal center and the regions by dividing Russia into seven federal districts and appointing overseers who get more and more power as time goes on.
The president has won the first round of the crisis he provoked by giving his actions the legitimacy of law.
Albeit more slowly, he also looks to be heading toward victory in the second round, that of reinforcing the powers of his overseers.
In a cunning move, Putin ushered the governors into the waiting cage of the not-entirely-constitutional organ that is the State Council, and then closed the door on them. In effect, he now has the governors in his hands. Dealing with subordinate officials is far simpler than dealing with the people's elected representatives. Subordinates can be asked to resign.
But the energy crisis alone wasn't enough to force Nazdratenko into retirement. Primorsky Krai's cold and dark buildings have become a regular seasonal nightmare for the population, and Nazdratenko has always held on to his job. No matter how great Putin's desire to slam the governor, the Kremlin couldn't have ordered Nazdratenko to step down over this one issue. It was simply the most convenient public pretext for the resignation.
For some time now, several groups from Moscow, primarily from the FSB and the president's Main Control Department, have been investigating corruption in Primorsky Krai, and sources in the Presidential Administration say Putin's decision to force out Nazdratenko was taken on the basis of their reports.
But since corruption investigations are lengthy procedures, and Putin wanted Nazdratenko out of the way fast, the Kremlin seized on the current crisis to get the governor out of his job, leaving him to try his luck in some relatively decent official post in Moscow.
From a PR point of view, the Kremlin played a virtuoso performance in its handling of the Primorsky crisis. When news began coming in day after day of people freezing in their homes as the cold raged, the Kremlin didn't bother sending a mere diplomatic envoy to the region, but dispatched a security man Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, whose mission was to make it clear to Nazdratenko that his time had come.
Putin is said to have chosen Shoigu especially for the task, following the logic "the only move against a headlock is another headlock." After hearing Shoigu's report on the situation, Putin declared that three people were guilty in the energy crisis: Nazdratenko, Energy Minister Alexander Gavrin and head of electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (UES) Anatoly Chubais.
The next step was to fulfill the Kremlin's long-cherished dream of firing Nazdratenko. To soothe the blow, he wasn't the only one, but got fired along with Gavrin. Chubais got off lightly his punishment is to accept changes to UES management that had been planned a long time ago, in any case. Two of his deputies will have to step down.
But losing two of his close collaborators isn't the worse news for Chubais. A greater punishment is that it is he who now has to clean up the mess in Primorsky Krai. Chubais, the perennial reformist survivor, has taken up the challenge with enthusiasm, flying off to Vladivostok to tell the people that they will always have electricity.
As for the "good and decent" Gavrin (he was described thus in a reference from head of the Presidential Administration Alexander Voloshin), he was set up to be the whipping boy right from the start.
He looked out of his depth as energy minister and his fate would have been sealed with or without a crisis. Had the crisis not come along, he probably would have held on until the government reforms planned for spring. As it was, he ended up being sacrificed to a great cause the removal of Nazdratenko.