Local heroes in Russia

By bne IntelliNews March 13, 2013

Julia Reed in Moscow -

The political demonstrations that started in December 2011 caught the headlines, but a Russian revolution to oust President Vladimir Putin failed to appear and the broad protest movement is petering out. However, those protests have given birth to the beginnings of a real civil society and local issues are starting to take over as Russians protest against problems closer to home - literally.

It is 10:00am on a Thursday and the temperature is -9°Celsius. It is the end of February in the centre of Moscow. Hidden in the piles of snow, is a small, authorized protest just under a well-known monument of the Heroes of the 1905 Revolution right next to the metro. Just over 50 warmly dressed people of all ages face a busy road away from the crowd of passers-by walking in and out of the metro. They are the residents of the areas that will be affected by the new construction plans and they are not happy.

The demonstrators have come to protest City of Moscow plans to build massive carparks and flyovers literally on their doorstep in an effort to reduce the capital's legendary traffic jams. The problem is that no one thought to ask the residents what they feel about these new highways that will run through their front gardens.

The protest would have been be hardly noticeable on the square if it hadn't been for a big slogan attached to the monument: "Residents should not be sacrificed in the widening of Kutuzovski Prospekt" - a major thoroughfare connecting the outskirts to the centre of the city, where traffic is frequently stopped to give way to presidential and government cavalcades.

Another banner, attached to the barrier facing the road, alerted the passing drivers to the upcoming urban development plans. As the slogans went up, a policeman monitoring the gathering immediately got on the phone to his supervisor to check if putting up the slogans was allowed. The supervisor seemed to have no instructions that banners on monuments were not allowed during the protest, so the slogans stayed. Then as if to show that he personally had nothing to do with the protest and was there purely because of duty, the policeman moved to the remotest corner to chat with his colleague.

Speakers stood at the podium, often only introducing themselves by their street and house number. There were no municipal officials in attendance and only one television camera. "We intentionally didn't publicize this protest much because only 100 people are authorized to be here," says Oleg Kazenkov, a Fili-Davydkovo district resident and activist of Dubleru.net construction protest group, "We also know that local communal services were instructed to take our flyers off the houses so that people don't find out about the construction in their area and the activist groups, so slightly fewer people turned up than we expected".

Flyovers in the front garden

In September, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest against rising utilities costs - a demonstration that failed to garner much international press coverage because it was not overtly political. But these small issue-specific protests are slowly growing in number and could form the kernel of Russia's "civilised revolution."

The bane of a Muscovite's life is the monumental traffic jams (and the long, drawn-out winter). Designed for horse-drawn carriages, not cars, Moscow does not have enough alternative roads leading into the centre. Since most offices, government buildings and businesses are located centrally, a simple journey from A to B can easily take up to two hours in the rush hour.

Even though the city boasts one of the fastest and most efficient metros in the world (one of the few things that worked well even in Soviet times) with a train pulling into a station every two minutes and delays rare, the existing public transport system already can't meet the demand from a rapidly expanding city of 13m souls. There are only a few fast commuter trains or shuttle bus routes going into the centre.

The previous mayor Yuri Luzhkov was in favour of building a series of rings around the city, yet the project he began has done little to improve the traffic situation. The new mayor Sergey Sobyanin is taking a different approach: the city is looking for investors to build a series of major transport hubs in the suburbs adjacent to existing metro stations. The idea is that commuters would drive to the station and leave their cars on multi-level car parks before completing the trip by train and metro. At the same time, a system of flyovers will be built to create alternative routes to the centre and connect major business districts, like the newly built Moscow City, Skolkovo and the proposed International Financial Centre in Rublyovo-Arkhangelskoe. One such hub is going to be built around Kuntsevskaya metro station.

With plans already on the table, the problem is that the city didn't bother to ask the residents who live in the vicinity of these new hubs and flyovers what they think. "They are going to widen the road 50 metres away from my balcony and 100 metres away from my daughter's kindergarten. We won't see trees or tulips from our windows anymore but a six-storey high flyover - and they tell us the solution is to put in triple glazing," says Elena Mazur, a local resident.

Few object to flyovers, a shopping centre, offices, a hotel and a car park for 2,000 in the heavily industrialised districts, but those that live in the leafier residential zones - such as Kuntsevo and Fili-Davydkovo - where flyovers are planned are not happy. There has been little public consultation and residents have been forced onto the streets to make their opinions known. "There are no public hearings. When 400 residents of Mozhaiski district came to a meeting with the prefecture, they moved the proposed flyover several hundred metres away to our district. We think the local authorities do this on purpose, so that the residents of neighbouring districts fight each other over which area the new motorways will go through and don't come together as a joint force," says Olga Simonova.

Now the residents are taking action and have set up the social network site Dubleru.net, an ad hoc civil group organized in an attempt to stop the construction, which locals charge does not take their wishes into consideration. "The plan shows motorways running through residential areas. They are going to build a big shopping mall on top of the Kuntsevskaya metro station and its metro line. The building where there is a theatre now and inexpensive clubs for children is going to be taken down and a hotel is going to go up," echoes Danil Ovsyannikov, another protester. "We don't need more shopping malls. There are already Gorbushka and Filion, two major shopping centres, just two metro stops away. Shopping centres will just attract more people and cars to the area, they will not solve the transport problem."

This isn't a movement that will bring the government down, but it is one that's increasingly typical for Russia: the government has become lazy and used to bulldozing over public opinion. But since the December 2011 demonstrations, ordinary people are increasing standing up for what they believe in or dislike and demanding to be heard.

Says Igor Vinnikov, another protester: "We need to collect signatures against the construction. So far we've only gathered 10,000 signatures. It's not enough. We need to go door to door and inform residents about these plans and how such barbaric urbanization going to deteriorate our quality of life and health. We need to protest outside of the prefecture. If 20% of the residents of each affected street go out and protest, they won't dare to go ahead with their plans."

There is also - perhaps inevitably because this is Russia - accusations of corruption and cronyism. The company in charge of reconstruction of Mozhaiski shosse and Kutuzovski prospect is Mostotrest, which belongs to Arkady Rotenberg, among the most influential businessmen in Russia by dint of his close ties to President Vladimir Putin. In April 2012, the former president Dmitry Medvedev let Mostotrest develop six major transport infrastructure projects in the city, in a deal reported to be worth RUB34.7bn. While local residents are busy demanding public hearings and collecting signatures, a 140-square-metre Slavyanski Boulevard shopping mall has already started being constructed. The flyover will connect this shopping centre with another one near the Kuntsevskaya metro station. The connecting eight-flyover road will go through the apple orchard amongst other things. To build it, an apple orchard of 3,168 trees will lose 2,638 of them.

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