Large protests have returned to the Russian capital, not over corruption or vote rigging, but a housing issue that could stir unwelcome trouble on the Kremlin’s doorstep in the run-up to the 2018 presidential election.
An estimated 20,000 people took to the streets to denounce plans initiated by President Vladimir Putin to demolish more than 4,000 apartment blocks built in the 1950s and 1960s, and rehouse 1.6mn inhabitants in new high-rise developments.
Two demonstrations in May – one sanctioned, the other not – came two months after tens of thousands of people marched in Moscow and dozens of cities across the country in protest at corruption, with the bulk of the claims centring on Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
The significance of the housing marches lies not so much in their numbers alone, but the fact that they quickly forced city hall to make concessions. Putin, whose popularity still hovers around the unassailable 80% mark, stayed above the fray, leaving Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to hastily draft new legislation to guarantee that rehoused residents don’t get cheated and thrust into remote and less-valuable homes.
Russians are used to grand infrastructure schemes involving vast amounts of money. And since the Soviet collapse in 1991 they have also learned to expect much of the funding to disappear or at least end in the coffers of favoured and connected contractors.
The same expectations will apply in the estimated $5bn housing project to replace the so-called khrushchevki – five-storey apartment blocks – built under Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But rather than by financial shenanigans on high, people are more directly concerned that their rights will be trampled on by those managing the project over the next 10-15 years.
“At town hall meetings and on social networks, people talk about their constitutional rights, primarily referring to property rights violated by the draconian legislative changes,” the Carnegie Moscow Centre wrote. Moreover, “such musings may easily lead to the conclusion that a government that violates the Constitution is illegitimate and hostile to the people of its city and country”.
Under the concessions being sent for parliamentary approval, replacement apartments would have the “same market value” as demolished apartments, as opposed to simply being the same size as previously proposed. They would also be located in the same district. Financial compensation would be an alternative to relocation. And no longer will those refusing their new home be evicted, and they will have the right to turn down some offers – up to a point.
“We are taking into account preferences if possible. But it’s not that easy – this is an apartment block, not a supermarket with a wide range of goods,” the mayor stressed.
Residents should vote on the fate of their building by June 15. If a majority of apartment owners vote against demolition, the building remains. But the vague wording of the initial plan also leaves the door open for authorities to knock down “similar” buildings. The list of affected houses also includes “perfectly sturdy brick buildings as well as the prefabricated khrushchevki”, the Carnegie Moscow Centre added.
The last truly large-scale protests in Moscow took place in 2011-12 when tens of thousands of people attended rallies to decry electoral fraud that saw the Kremlin-loyal United Russia party win a majority in the lower chamber of parliament. Opposition leaders were persecuted and some jailed, and tough protest laws were passed, bringing the actions eventually to an end.
Russians have since largely rallied behind their president and government in the showdown with the West over Ukraine. But new eruptions of discontent over issues like housing can threaten to snowball with wider grievances as the 2018 election approaches. Putin, who has not yet announced his candidacy, is expected to stroll to a fourth term in the Kremlin. Medvedev still remains, but is likely to be replaced before the elections to spare Putin from being tainted by association with the waning popularity of the premier.
But even if the Moscow demolition controversy is resolved peacefully, this could sow future trouble for the city and national authorities. Horizontal networks of citizens mobilised by the housing crisis will stay in place to tackle other issues, warns the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “New dissenters have ample opportunity to express their opinion in the coming months, with a number of elections looming on the political horizon, ranging from municipal Moscow elections in September to the presidential election early next year,” it says.