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PM Putin steps in over power cuts

Difficulties and delays in restoring electricity to hundreds of Russian villages after freezing rain broke power lines has caused a political scandal in Moscow.

Russia's energy minister and the Moscow region governor had to change their plans for ringing in the New Year - the most important family holiday of the year in Russia - after being publicly chastised by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin scolded the pair for failing to fulfil promises to restore electricity to 35 villages which had been without power for nearly a week and ordered them to start the New Year in those blacked-out villages, which they did, with television cameras in tow.

Television footage showed Governor Boris Gromov inside a home in the village of Kurovo, where electricity had been restored just hours before. "I want to apologise for what happened," he told the woman of the house.

The freezing rain of the previous weekend had coated everything in its path with a thick layer of ice. As trees and power lines snapped, power was cut off to 789 villages and towns with a total of 400,000 inhabitants in the region around Moscow. Mr Gromov said that, by late yesterday, only 13 villages remained without power, but new problems have arisen as snow continued to fall.

When Mr Gromov and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko reported back to Mr Putin, he told them he had information that some people had been asked to pay money to get their power restored. He then ordered an investigation.

Mr Putin often steps in when public pressure begins to build on officials whose response to crises is seen as too slow or ineffective. For instance, when wildfires swept through much of western Russia last summer, he visited scorched villages and ordered regional governments to compensate people for their losses. He also personally took the controls of a firefighting aircraft.

While chastising officials, who in Russia are often reluctant to act without a signal from above, Mr Putin also sends a message to ordinary Russians that everything will be fine because he is in control.

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