Eliminating Local Government in Russia

An elderly woman pulling a metal container with water past a snow-covered wooden house with carved window frames in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 17, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS Россия. Омская область. 19 февраля 2017. Жительница села Кондратьево в Муромцевском районе Омской области. Дмитрий Феоктистов/ТАСС
An elderly woman pulling a container with water in the village of Kondratyevo, Omsk Region, February 19, 2017. Photo courtesy of Dmitry Feoktistov/TASS

Duma to Legalize Elimination of Settlements by the Regions
Maria Makutina
RBC
February 22, 2017

The Duma has tabled an amendment that would legalize converting municipal districts into urban districts. RBC’s sources have informed us the move to eliminate local government in settlements would be supported by the relevant committee. In Moscow Region, such mergers have sparked grassroots protests.

An “Elegant Way” of Eliminating Local Self-Government
Mikhail Terentiev, an United Russia MP from Moscow Region, has submitted amendments to the law on general principles of local self-government to the Duma Committee on Local Self-Government. (RBC has the document in its possession.) The MP has proposed amending the law to make it possible to merge all settlements, including rural settlements, that constitute a municipal district with an urban district. Under such a merger, the settlements and the municipal district would forfeit their status as municipal entities. Decisions about such mergers would be taken by regional authorities “with the consent” of local representative bodies.

Terentiev has also proposed changing the definition of an “urban district,” as stipulated by the law. Currently, it is defined as a urban settlement that is not part of a municipal district. The new draft law defines it as “one or more contiguous populated areas that are not municipal entities.”

Moscow Region authorities have found an “elegant and simple  way” to legalize the single-tier system of local government that, in recent years has, been established in a number of Russia’s regions, including Moscow Region, Andrei Maximov, an analyst with the Committee of Civic Initiatives, explained to RBC.

Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
Moscow Region Governor Andrei Vorobyov. Photo courtesy of Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

Protests
In November of last year, Andrei Vorobyov, governor of Moscow Region, announced plans to convert around twenty municipal districts into urban districts in 2016–2017. According to Vorobyov, the reform would save money by reducing the number of officials.

The proposed move sparked popular protests. Moscow Region municipal district council members, unhappy with the dissolution of local executive and representative bodies, held protest rallies. Public hearings on reforming local systems devolved into clashes with the Russian National Guard.

A Local Self-Government Congress was held in Moscow in February. Local council members from Moscow Region requested that Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and law enforcement agencies investigate “numerous incidents in which local government bodies, including municipal districts, rural settlements, and urban settlements, have been forcibly dissolved.”

“The law does not provide for dissolving a municipal district or converting it into a urban district, so Moscow Region authorities conceived a way of getting round the law. First, they merge rural settlements with an urban settlement, and then they turn it into an urban district.  But the municipal districts are left in a limbo,” said Maximov.

The Presidential Human Right Council has argued that the reforms in Moscow Region violate the public’s right to local self-government. HRC deputy chair Yevgeny Bobrov said as much to Vladimir Putin at the council’s December 8, 2016, meeting. The president promised to “work” on the issue.

Nevertheless, in 2015, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that the merger of two rural settlements and the Ozyory urban settlement into an urban district was legal.

Simplifying Governance
MP Terentiev explained to RBC that his amendments were motivated by the need to optimize the budget in Moscow Region.

“The governor and I realized that money could be saved on officials,” he said.

Thanks to the reforms, “there will be an overall approach to wage policies and the opportunity to reduce administrative barriers to business,” Terentiev argued.

The current law stipulates that Russia is divided into settlements, which are organized into municipal districts, and particularly large settlements, which are organized into urban districts, Maximov explained. According to Terentiev’s draft amendments, any territorial entity in Russia can be turned into an urban district, meaning it can be moved from the two-tier system to the one-tier system.

The authorities have been attempting to confer the status of urban districts on municipal districts in order to dissolve settlements and simplify governance. Rural authorities can interfere with the plans of regional authorities to implement urban planning projects and create obstacles to resolving land use issues, which currently require the consent of the settlements affected, political scientist Alexander Kynyev explained to RBC.

The Total Deterioration of Settlements
Experience has shown that populated areas lacking elements of self-governance deteriorate and disappear, RBC’s source on the Local Self-Government Committee told us. According to the source, the draft amendments would lead to the total deterioration of the settlement-tier of governance throughout the entire country.

“It is nonsense to eliminate settlements in densely populated Moscow Region. It doesn’t fit into any paradigm. It is just the governor’s whim. It will be easier for him to manage his affairs this way, and so the law has been mangled for this sake. He has to demolish everything so it will be easier to build it up again,” RBC’s source said.

The reform has been opposed by people of different views and parties. Local self-government as such has been threatened. As the 2018 presidential election approaches, the federal authorities want to avoid such controversies, argues Kynyev.

Through the Back Gate
Terentiev tabled his draft amendments as part of the second reading of a draft law bill that would abolish direct popular votes on whether to change the status of urban and rural settlements. The government tabled the draft law back in the spring of 2015. It was passed in its first reading the same year, after which the Duma has not returned to it.

Radical change in the territorial basis of local self-government has been brought in “through the back gate,” noted our source in the Duma, although the 2014 local self-government reforms were “seriously discussed” in society, he recalled.

Alexei Didenko (LDPR), chair of the Duma’s Local Self-Government Committee, agreed the draft bill could “eliminate the machinery of popular self-government,” and ordinary people would find it harder to defend their interests. According to Didenko, the draft amendments were at odds with what the president said during his 2013 state of the nation address: “Local governance should be organized in such a way  anyone can reach out and touch it.”

Didenko told RBC  the decision whether to support Terentiev’s draft amendments or not would be made by his committee, most of whom are United Russia members, in March. Two sources in the Duma told RBC the committee would approve the draft amendments.

How Local Authorities Have Been Stripped of Their Powers
In his December 2013 address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin asked that the organizational principles of local self-government be clarified. According to Putin, the quantity of responsibilities and resources of municipal officials were out of balance, “hence the frequent confusion over powers.”

In May 2014, a law reforming local self-government was passed, endowing the regions with the right to assume a considerable number of the powers previously exercised by local authorities in taking economic decisions.

The original draft of the bill called for the abolition of direct elections of big-city mayors and city council members. The final draft stipulated the heads of municipal entities could be either elected directly or appointed from among council members.  In the first case, the head of the municipal entity could lead the administration himself. (If the municipal entity in question is a city, he would become city manager.) In the second case, the head of the municipal entity would chair its representative body.

Regional legislative assemblies were accorded the right to divide cities and towns into intra-urban municipal entities. Two new types of municipal entities were introduced for this purpose: urban districts with intra-city divisions, and intra-urban districts.

First-tier council members (that is, council members of urban and rural settlements) are elected directly by voters. Second-tier council members (of municipal districts and urban districts with intra-city divisions) are either elected or delegated from among the heads of settlements and first-tier council members, in the case of municipal districts, or only from among first-tier council members, in the case of urban districts with intra-city divisions. The method of electing council members was also to have been defined by regional law.

In February 2015, two other methods for electing heads of municipal entities were introduced. The first method allows the head of a municipality, chosen by the municipality’s council from among its members, to lead the local administration. However, he surrenders his mandate as a council member. The second method allows a bureaucrat, chosen by council members from a slate of candidates suggested by a hiring committee, to lead the local administration. This had made it possible for city managers to become autocratic mayors.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my December 15, 2016, post on the same topic, “In Tomilino.”

Defenders of the Fatherland

fatherland-defenders

Front page of St. Petersburg news website Fontanka.ru on the morning of 21 February 2017. The lead story is headlined, “Who Is Accused of Attempting to Kill Montenegro’s Prime Minister?” On the other hand, today’s most popular story is, allegedly, “Defenders of the Fatherland to Be Congratulated with a 30-Gun Salute.”

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Russia law on killing ‘extremists’ abroad
Steven Eke
BBC News
27 November 2016

A new Russian law, adopted earlier in the year, formally permits the extra-judicial killings abroad of those Moscow accuses of “extremism”.

In the wake of the death of ex-spy Alexander Litvinenko in London, the Sunday Telegraph has alleged that Russian spy agencies – “emboldened” by the new law – have carried out a number of such targeted killings.

In July, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament – the Federation Council – approved a law which permits the Russian president to use the country’s armed forces and special services outside Russia’s borders to combat terrorism and extremism.

At the same time, amendments to several other laws, governing the security services, mass media and communications, were adopted.

The overall result was to dramatically expand those defined as terrorist or extremist.

Along with those seeking to overthrow the Russian government, the term is also applied to “those causing mass disturbances, committing hooliganism or acts of vandalism”.

Much more controversially, the law also defines “those slandering the individual occupying the post of president of the Russian Federation” as extremists.

Specific law

Russian lawmakers insisted that they were emulating Israeli and US actions in adopting a law allowing the use of military and special forces outside the country’s borders against external threats.

But the Russian law is very specific in that it permits the president – alone, and apparently without consultation – to take such a decision.

The only proviso is that he must inform the Federation Council within five days.

At the same time, he is not obliged to disclose the location of the operation, which units are involved, or the timescale for its execution.

Memorial, one of the oldest and most-respected Russian human rights groups, reacted strongly to the new law.

In an open letter addressed to Vladimir Putin, it accused the Russian leader of sanctioning extra-judicial executions.

It said the country’s “highest leaders” had turned a blind eye to the activities of “death squads” in the North Caucasus for some years. And, it predicted, with the adoption of the new law, those activities would now be seen in other countries too.

‘Poison umbrella’

The case of Mr Litvinenko has led to an outpouring of conspiracy theories, many of which suggest he was killed by a Russian secret service, of which there are several.

But in reality, there have been only a very small number of killings by poison of Russia’s opponents abroad.

Indeed, the last known case abroad of this type of execution was of Georgi Markov, the Bulgarian dissident assassinated by “poison umbrella” in London in 1978.

Many years later, during the perestroika era, a retired KGB general admitted that he had provided the toxin.

Such events were, however, widespread inside the Soviet Union during the terror of the 1930s to 50s.

The 1958 trial of Pavel Sudoplatov – a lieutenant general in the Soviet secret service, who was closely involved in the execution in Mexico of Trotsky – heard how toxins were “illegally tested” on a large number of prisoners who had been sentenced to death.

In more recent years, there is convincing evidence that an extra-judicial killing was carried out by Russian special forces in Qatar in 2004 when the former Chechen separatist president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, was blown up by a car-bomb.

Russian Is Easy: Bans for Brekkers

ban-s-rostbifom

One reason Russian has become a lot easier over the past ten or twenty years is that Russia’s creative classes have been strenuously churning their native tongue into a Russified variety of English.

Here’s a great example, as suggested to me just now by one of Mark Zuckerberg’s algorithms, which know I adore this ghastly self-hating twee monster called Rusglish.

At one of Chef Aram Mnatsakanov’s tiny empire of restaurants in Petersburg, Jérôme (don’t ask), you can order something called ban s rostbifom and ban s svininoi for brekkers.

menu

It’s not the rostbif and svinina (“roast beef” and “pork”) that caught my eye. They’ve long been part of the great and mighty Russian language.

What caught me eye was the word ban (bun). Why were “Russia’s Jamie Oliver” (not my coinage) and Co. unable to condescend to the perfectly Russian, extremely ordinary, and utterly comprehensible word bulochka (“bun”) when writing up the menu?

Because that would have sounded too common. For €6.77 a pop Mnatsakanov’s diners expect something “fancier” (as Mum would have put it) than a plain old bulochka their babushkas could have baked for them out of the kindness of their lonely hearts.

Mnatskanov’s customers don’t want kindness. They want conspicuous consumption. And they want it labeled, at least partly, in English, even if that English is as supremely common and humble as “bun” (ban). TRR

Images courtesy of Jérôme

Bhaskar Sunkara: “You Say East Ukraine, I Say West Russia”

Has Bhaskar Sunkara ever been to “West Russia”?

west-russia

Source: Facebook

bhaskartwitter-660x440
Bhaskar Sunkara. Photo courtesy of Magculture

Bhaskar Sunkara (born June 20, 1989) is an American political writer, editor and publisher of Jacobin magazine.

The son of immigrants from Trinidad and Tobago, Sunkara described Jacobin as a radical publication, “largely the product of a younger generation not quite as tied to the Cold War paradigms that sustained the old leftist intellectual milieus like Dissent or New Politics.”

The New York Times interviewed Sunkara in January 2013, commenting on Jacobin’s unexpected success and engagement with mainstream liberalism. In late 2014, he was interviewed by New Left Review on the political orientation and future trajectory of the publication and in March 2016 was featured in a lengthy Vox profile.

Sunkara writes for Vice magazine, Washington Post and The Nation, among other outlets. He has appeared on the PBS Tavis Smiley program, MSNBC’s Up w/ Chris Hayes and the FX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.

Source: Wikipedia

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Residents in eastern Ukraine face worst fighting in years in war with Russian-backed separatists
Sabra Ayres
Los Angeles Times
February 15, 2017

The news reached Mariupol Mayor Vadim Boychenko via a morning phone call from an assistant: A rocket attack damaged 11 houses on the outskirts of the Ukrainian city.

There were no casualties, but a major concern had become a reality: The escalation of fighting elsewhere in the nation in recent weeks had reached the industrial city, a key component in southeast Ukraine’s struggling economy.

“We’ve gotten used to a peaceful life,” Boychenko said during a recent interview at his office. “I really don’t want to return to the problems we had started to forget.”

Ukraine’s nearly three-year battle against Kremlin-backed separatists in the east erupted into the worst fighting in two years in late January. Exactly why the fighting intensified recently remains unclear, though such encounters have occurred with some frequency during unrest that included Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014.

The small city of Avdiivka, 90 miles north of Mariupol, became the epicenter of the recent violence. The fighting quickly spread along a 300-mile line separating the Ukrainian government-controlled lands and those claimed by separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Mariupol had seen only sporadic fighting over the last two years, primarily in the region’s eastern villages. But as news trickled in about the bombardment of Avdiivka, Mariupol began again hearing the deep rumble of explosions and heavy artillery fire less than 10 miles away.

The fighting halted vital shipments from Avdiivka’s coal processing plant to Mariupol’s massive iron and steel works plants, jeopardizing production at one of the region’s biggest employers.

Many local residents said they feared the renewed violence could quash the growing sense of confidence in Mariupol after nearly two years of relative stability.

One concern in the region is that President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin could strike a deal that would lift U.S. sanctions on Russia or force Ukraine to make painful compromises with Moscow. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged Western leaders to keep sanctions in place.

“Sanctions are the only way to get Putin to the table,” he said last week in an interview with journalists and academics in Kiev, the capital.

Nationally, there is little faith in the Minsk agreements, a road map to peace brokered in 2014 by European leaders between Ukraine, the Kremlin and the separatist rebel leaders. Poroshenko maintains that Ukraine is committed to its obligations to the agreements.

“Minsk is my plan. Putin accepted it. His signature is there,” he said.

Mariupol has gone through a noticeable transformation since war erupted in eastern Ukraine in the spring of 2014. Once the epitome of a run-down, Soviet industrial port city with two massive metallurgy plants puffing out pollution day and night, Mariupol in the last two years has emerged as a center of civic activism in Ukraine’s southeastern battlefront.

The city was the center of several violent outbreaks in spring 2014, when Ukrainian forces and supporters of the pro-Russian separatist groups fought gun battles in the downtown streets. The charred former police headquarters and city council buildings still stand as reminders. On Jan. 24, 2015, a missile attack hit an eastern region of Mariupol dense with Soviet-era concrete housing blocks, killing at least 30 people.

The previously politically passive, mostly Russian-speaking city created community groups that mobilized to gather whatever money they could to buy medical kits, food, and flak jackets and helmets for Ukraine’s ill-prepared military. The fighting displaced 1.75 million eastern Ukrainians, but locals opened their homes and about 56,000 newcomers settled in Mariupol.

“We don’t call them refugees anymore,” Boychenko said. “They are ‘new Mariupolites’ and have already become part of our city.”

Once-thriving Donetsk is now occupied by rebel forces, so Mariupol, the largest city in the Donetsk region under Ukrainian control, became the de facto cultural hub of the eastern industrial area along the Don River basin, known as the Donbas.

Displaced activists from Donetsk opened an avant-garde theater and creative space that has hosted some of the country’s big names in modern talent.

Small businesses — grocery stores, small restaurants and mom-and-pop shops — whose owners fled the fighting returned, and new cafes have opened. Ukraine’s most popular music group, Okean Elzy, gave a free concert in May attended by more than 30,000 people.

“We’ve been working all year to create a positive mood in the city,” Boychenko said.

Alex Ryabchyn, a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament who was born in Mariupol, said the city is in the early stages of reinvention.

“The population is starting to think of themselves as being the center of southeastern Ukraine. That’s new, “ said Ryabchyn,  who was an economics professor in Donetsk State University before fleeing to Kiev after the pro-Russia rebel takeover.

Mariupol faces major challenges, particularly in the economic sphere. Ukraine’s economy has been battered since protests ousted a Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovich in 2014. The war ripped apart the country’s coal mining and steel processing industry, destroying many plants and severely curtailing production in those that survived.

The aging steel plants need modernization and the economy needs diversification to revitalize the region. Highways linking Mariupol to other cities are so bad that drivers are forced to reroute to avoid the worst sections. Train rides from Kiev to Mariupol, about 500 miles, take 18 hours, and the airport cannot accept commercial flights because of its location near the front lines of fighting.

Mariupol can feel like an isolated peninsula in Ukraine, an image many hoped was changing.

“You can see why [an increase in fighting] is a problem,” Irina Chirkova, 24, a waitress in Mariupol, said as a series of explosions pierced the cold air. “We have a lot of potential here — a big port, an airport and nice beaches. But our infrastructure needs investment, and who is going to invest in us now with this war?”

“The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov” (Panel Discussion, Berlinale 2017)

Panelists: Agnieszka Holland (Director), Askold Kurov (Director), Mike Downey (Producer), Dmitry Dinze (Lawyer of Oleg Sentsov), Natalya Kaplan (Cousin of Oleg Sentsov), Sylvia Schreiber (Translator)

Thanks to Alexei Markov for the heads-up

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oleg-sentsov
Oleg Sentsov. Courtesy of Berlin Film Festival

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Owen Gleiberman
Variety
February 11, 2017

A documentary about the Ukranian filmmaker imprisoned for his support of Crimean independence is a scrappy testament to the true nature of the Vladimir Putin regime.

It has to rank as one of Donald Trump’s most shocking statements — which is really saying something. Asked by the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly how he could respect Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom O’Reilly characterized as a “killer,” Trump replied, “There are a lot of killers. Boy, you think our country’s so innocent?” Over the last year, Trump has presented himself as a racist, a bully, a manhandler of women, a mocker of the disabled, and a loony-tunes conspiracy theorist. But whoever thought he’d come off sounding like the second coming of Noam Chomsky? The notion that the United States government routinely engages in “killer” behavior commensurate with that of what Russia does is, of course, a left-wing idea. (Just ask Oliver Stone, another Putin apologist who should know better.) But Trump put a new spin on it: Whatever the motivation (his desire to tilt the axis of global power against China? Burying those rumored water-sports videos?), he was so intent to claim that his new BFF Vladimir is, you know…not so bad that he was willing to hijack 50 years of radical academic moral relativism by reducing it to a Trump sound bite.

All of which makes me wish that Trump would sit down and watch “The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov,” a documentary that just premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. It’s a peek into how the Russian state actually operates, and though it raises more questions than it answers, it leaves you with a shuddering chill. The central figure, Oleg Sentsov, is a Ukrainian writer and filmmaker known for his 2011 movie “Gamer.” In Russia, it made him a directorial star, but during the 2014 Crimean crisis he became part of the AutoMaidan movement, devoted to keeping Ukraine — and, specifically, Crimea — independent of Russia. He delivered food and supplies to Ukrainian servicemen, but on May 11, 2014, he was arrested and charged with organizing a terrorist cell, plotting terrorist attacks, and trafficking in illegal arms. He was held indefinitely and is now serving a 34-year prison sentence in Siberia. (The movie ends with clips of that Siberian prison. Have you ever seen Siberia? It looks like … Siberia.)

We’re shown footage of Sentsov in TV interviews during his moment of indie-film fame and then, a few years later, speaking from behind bars in the courtroom (yes, there’s a jail cell in court). Tall and husky, with dark cropped hair, popping eyes, and a grin of goofy optimism, he’s the father of two teenagers, and if you were looking for someone to play him in a movie, it might be Bradley Cooper; he has that kind of rubbery resilience. A number of noted directors — Wim Wenders, Agnieszka Holland — show up to testify to his status as a filmmaker.

In “The Trial,” Sentsov embraces his role as a political prisoner, yet the movie reveals what the stakes are: When he talks to his daughter on the phone, we see the price paid by any dissident — not just the personal agony of incarceration, but the ripped bonds of family. Sentsov was subjected to torture in prison, all to produce a confession to activities that never happened. (He didn’t confess.) The reason “The Trial” is a valuable document, even though it’s not an especially good movie, goes right back to Putin. It was Sentsov’s status as an art-house celebrity that made him a target in Russia. The regime arrested many “terrorists,” but he was held up as an example to the elite, intellectual class. The message was: If we can do this to him, we can do it you. The real terrorism came from the government, a way of driving fear into those who might speak out.

Russia swims in a daily ice bath of fake news (and real-news clampdown), which is why documentaries have been some of the only vehicles for revealing Vladimir Putin’s thug tactics. Ten years ago, the barely seen film “Poisoned by Polonium: The Litvinenko File” was the first inquiry to amass serious data suggesting that what Bill O’Reilly said about Putin is true. In “The Trial,” we see extended clips of Putin addressing the Sentsov case (a member of the Russian Parliament bows and scrapes before Putin so nervously it’s like seeing an outtake from “The Godfather, Part II”), but Putin, in public, is no glowering fascist. He comes off as impeccably civilized and almost geekishly seductive. He makes you want to be his friend. That, of course, is his version of smoke and mirrors.

Directed and shot by Askold Kurov, a Russian filmmaker as brave as his subject, “The Trial” is a thrown-together movie that doesn’t have much of an arc. It’s 75 minutes long, and to be brutally honest, I would have been just as happy watching Sentsov’s story compressed into a “60 Minutes” segment. Yet whatever its flaws, a movie like this one is necessary. It speaks the truth about the Russian regime — the truth that’s buried by Putin, and now buried by our own president, who only dreams that he could do the same thing to his enemies. More than ever, global film culture needs every documentary that lets you stare into the face of oppression with eyes wide open.

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Trial: The State of Russia vs Oleg Sentsov’
Reviewed at Cinemaxx (Berlin Film Festival), February 10, 2017. Running time: 75 min.

Production
A Ceská televise, Prag production in cooperation with the Polish Film Institute.

Crew
Producers: Max Tuula, Maria Gavrilova, Dariusz Jablonski, Izabela Wójcik, Violetta Kaminska.

Crew
Director: Askold Kurov. Oren Moverman. Camera (color, widescreen): Kurov. Editor: Michal Leszczylowski.

With
Oleg Sentsov, Vladimir Putin, Agnieszka Holland, Wim Wenders.

“A Great City Deserves a Great Library”: Petersburg Professors Defend the Publichka

Literary scholar Dmitry Kalugin picketing the entrance to the Russian National Library (“Publichka”), February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanova/Novaya Gazeta

Professors Stand Up for Librarians
Serafim Romanov
Novaya Gazeta Sankt-Peterburg
February 9, 2017

“Have you heard they want to merge the Russian National Library with the Lenin Library in Moscow?” Boris Kolonitsky, a senior researcher at the St. Petersburg Institute of History (Russian Academy of Sciences) asked passerby.

On February 9, a “professors’ picket” took place outside the Russian National Library’s main building on Ostrovsky Square. Lecturers from the European University, the Higher School of Economics, and other institutions rallied to preserve the so-called Publichka and defend its former head bibliographer Tatyana Shumilova [who was summarily dismissed from her post last week for speaking publicly about the negative consequences of the merger.]

Most bystanders heard about these developments for the first time. But after a short briefing, passersby agreed it would be wrong to merge one of the country’s most important academic and cultural institutions.

“It is not so much the library, St. Isaac’s or anything else that causes people to protest, as it is the fact that no one reckons with them,” Viktor Voronkov, director of the Centre for Independent Social Reseach, explained to Novaya Gazeta. “Why is everything being centralized? To make it was easier to control. The entire country is being formed up into a [power] vertical, and it is the same way in every field.”

“It matters that people from the outside, people who don’t work at the library but understand its value, speak out,” said journalist Daniil Kotsiubinsky, who organized the rally.

“The people who came here today are not random, but one of a kind. Petersburgers should listen to them.”

As the rally was drawing to a close, the overall enthusiasm was disturbed by a police officer.

“We’ve got a solo picket here,” the guardian of order reported on his cell phone, asking the picketers to show him their papers.

“It’s an A4-sized placard,” the policeman reported. “What does it say? ‘A great city deserves a great library.'”

Historian Boris Kolonitsky shows the group’s placard to a policeman. February 9, 2017, Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Serafim Romanov/Novaya Gazeta

Translated by the Russian Reader

Has Petersburg City Hall Made a Shambles of New Hospital Construction?

Part of the old facilities at the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village
Part of the old facilities at the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village

Petersburg Municipal Hospital and Clinic Construction Program on the Skids
Svetlana Zobova
Delovoi Peterburg
February 3, 2017

Petersburg Governor Georgy Poltavchenko has botched ex-Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s ambitious program of building 32 healthcare facilities at a cost of upwards of 30 billion rubles. The city lacks a force that could consolidate physicians and builders to campaign against construction delays.

DP has audited all the municipal healthcare facilities that have been built, are under currently construction or are in the planning stages. The circumstances surrounding them are far from ideal. In each specific case, we can speak of certain objective causes as to why a particular clinic has not been completed or is not yet treating patients. But if we look at the issue as a whole, it becomes clear our city has no system for overseeing and managing the sector. Accountability is split between two committees whose specialists, to put it mildly, are not very happy with each other.

Both doctors and builders tell obscene jokes about each other behind each other’s backs and complain of their opponents’ extreme incompetence and their unwillingness to compromise. They cannot work together to finish nearly any of the projects. But no one is ready for a showdown that could reverse the situation and establish new, functioning rules of the game.

The few examples when new hospitals and clinics have been successfully opened either conceal sad stories of protracted construction delays or were overseen by federal officials, and the degree of oversight and accountability were thus on a completely different level. Aside from federal facilities, this study did not take into account facilities that merely underwent renovations, only those that were slated for complete makeovers or new facilities.

DP received quite detailed replies from the city’s Construction Committee and Healthcare Committee about the causes of the delays at dozens of facilities and the complications with bringing operating facilities online. However, there was no answer as to why these processes have been implemented so poorly, with so much anguish and pain.

Good Intentions

To equip the city with the three dozen modern medical facilities it so badly needed, the Matviyenko administration allocated around 30 billion rubles. However, under the current administration, construction companies have been paid less than 10 billion rubles from the budget, completing only a few facilities in fits and starts. Our sources in the Health Committee say the sector’s underfunding has been due to delays in construction.

In some cases, the quality of their work has caught the eye of the prosecutor’s office, while in other cases, expensive medical equipment has been ruined due to mistakes and miscalculations. Deadline overruns have been ubiquitous. It would be wrong to say that the only cause has been poor work on the part of builders and designers. The city authorities have kept on awarding new contracts even to those contractors who have attempted to turn over blatantly shoddy facilities to doctors and brazenly lied.

DP discussed the problem with a dozen head physicians and their deputies, as well as well as contractors and city officials. We got the impression Petersburg has not become Russia’s northern healthcare capital less because of the economic crisis and a lack of financing, and more because of bureaucracy and the complete absence of a genuinely efficient system for managing municipal construction projects. In several instances, it is obvious that if city officials had done nothing at all, it would have been much better, as was the case, for example, with the closure of the maternity hospital on Vavilovykh Street.

Petersburg’s Hospitals

When she departed from Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko left a legacy of numerous ambitious construction projects, including healthcare facilities. She had planned for the construction or reconstruction of 32 medical facilities by 2016, including new hospital wings, outpatient clinics for children and adults, dentistry clinics, ambulance stations, and specialized early treatment and prevention centers (as per Petersburg Government Decree No. 149, dated 10 February 2011).

As of late 2016, city authorities had built and opened only six facilities on the list. Another four facilities have been built, but their directors, the Construction Committee, and contractors have been bogged down in fierce arguments as to the quality of the construction. The other projected facilities have either been frozen or not assigned a contractor, and their designs are now outdated.

Initially, Governor Poltavchenko seemed inclined to keep improving healthcare in Petersburg. In 2012, he added several dozen future facilities to Matviyenko’s list. Design and construction work on the facilities was to have been completed in 2013–2014.

For example, the new governor promised to rebuild the morgue at the Bureau of Forensic Medicine, design a hospice, build several antenatal clinics, design new wings for the Kashchenko Mental Hospital, and build a TB prevention and treatment clinic in Kolpino.

A little later, Matviyenko and Poltavchenko’s plans were drafted as a program for the healthcare sector. The document originally promised that city officials would arrange for the construction or reconstruction of 29 ambulance stations and medical facilities capable of taking in 36,000 patients a day by 2015.

In reality, the healthcare facilities construction program has been the most disastrous line item in the city’s targeted investment program for several years running.  In 2016, none of the medical facilities under construction used 100% of the funds allocated to them in the budget. Certain facilities did not touch literally any of the funds allocated to them.

The prosecutor’s office and the Audit Chamber have highlighted construction delays. The city’s vice-governors for construction policy and Construction Committee chairs have come and gone, but federal officials are still asking the same questions.

At our request, the Construction Committee listed all the medical facilities that have been either built or constructed in the last ten years. According to the officials there, from 2009 to 2011, the three years before Poltavchenko took office, eleven major facilities were brought online. After he arrived in the governor’s office, from 2012 to 2016, another eleven facilities were completed, according to officials, although two are still closed, and the others opened considerably later than they were completed.

The city’s Health Committee provided us with different information. Officials there calculated that 28 facilities had been completed between 2006 and 2016, although Poltavchenko’s program had stipulated either renovating or building 63 facilities from scratch. The difference in figures is due to the fact that officials from the two committees used different timespans. In reality, both lists show outright that the city has got worse at building medical facilities since Poltavchenko’s team came on board.

As health professionals who were well versed in the issues told us, city officials would always ask contractors the same questions during regular on-site debriefings. Why is the facility not under construction?  You’ve been working here for five years, but you’re still at stage one. How much of your advance have you gone through? Who produced such a bad design?

Subordinates would be reprimanded, and contractors would be fined and have their contracts torn up, but nothing would change. Construction completion dates would be postponed, and cost estimates would be increased.

By 2016, the list of construction projects had been greatly reduced. Currently, the target invested program lists 14 medical facilities, almost all of them projects from the Matviyenko period that have been subjected to protracted delays.

The construction sector professionals we surveyed estimated that, on average, one and half years are needed to design a large medical facility, while it would take another three years to build the facility.  A small ambulance station could be built in a year. In Petersburg, however, actual times to completion are many times longer. It takes five to 15 years to build many facilities.

The Causes Are Plain to See

The Smolny believes that the virtual breakdown of its grand social policy plans has been due to insufficient funding. Thus, in 2017, Petersburg’s most renowned delay-plagued construction project, the Zenit Arena, gobbled up nearly a billion rubles. But this is fibbing, for, in reality, line items for financing the building of facilities that have obviously been abandoned were simply stricken from the budget, because no one was spending any money on them.

In addition, according to the city hall officials we talked to, careless contractors are to blame for construction delays and poorly designed projects, and for not calculating their risks. As you might guess, in this way of seeing the world, officials bear no blame for the fact they are surrounded by bunglers and swindlers.

But there is a more complex view of the issue. A source at one of the city’s largest hospitals told us that the ceremonial communiques and press releases issued by city officials belie the serious friction between the Construction Committee and the Healthcare Committee, as well as between the relevant vice-governors. For while hospitals and clinics are still under construction, the Construction Committee’s budget is replenished. They even purchase medical equipment. But when hospitals start treating patients, the money for that is allocated via the Healthcare Committee. This does not mean, of course, that the Construction Committee deliberately delays building projects. Of course, they want to get delay-plagued facilities off their hands as quickly as possible. But Construction Committee staffers bear no personal accountability for missed deadlines and the poor quality of construction.

A senior official, who has worked in the Healthcare Committee since the Matviyenko administration, says during the past four or five years he and Vice-Governor Olga Kazanskaya have had to wage a “quite serious fight” with the construction bloc in the Smolny. Describing the state of affairs in the Construction Committee, the official spoke of confusion and complained about the frequent change of leadership.

A telling example occurred when we asked Igor Albin, vice-governor for construction, to explain why the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital, whichas far back as 2015 he had publicly promised would soon reopen, was still not treating patients. However, he gave us no explanation, shifting the blame for the situation on Healthcare Committee staffers. In turn, they said it was the Construction Committee who was responsible for construction at the Botkin. Off the record [sic], they told us about a long list of defects and unfinished work to which contractors wanted doctors to turn a blind eye, making them sign off on the facility even though it was unfinished. Of course, a dispute like this could go on indefinitely until someone takes responsibility for the entire project.

No Accountability

Our source in the medical community, who spoke out about the construction community in a somewhat biased way, argued that no one except medical professionals had any interest in bringing facilities online. As a consequence, officials failed to make purchase requests for equipment, did not calculate the costs of logistics, and fined the medical facilities.

“There is way too much politicking and money at each stage. Everything is bureaucratized and corrupt in the extreme. What matters is that everything looks right on paper,” said our source.

He was surprised that, under Poltavchenko, the Construction Committee did not “tremble” for failing to execute the annual budget. Under Matviyenko, he claimed, failing to spend funds allocated under the yearly budget was considered an extremely grave offense for officials to commit.

Another senior medical administrator sees the root of the trouble not in corruption per se, but, rather, in the overall “muddle” and the fact that “the system doesn’t function.”

“Every staffer needs to know his function and the consequences that await him in case of failure. Step left, step right, and you can step on a land mine and blow up. Now, though, there is basically no accountability for mistakes, and no one feels personally to blame.”

The Construction Committee has no specific department or expert responsible for medical facilities. A personal curator is usually appointed to oversee each of them. A considerable part of the work is overseen by the Fund for Capital Construction and Reconstruction, which is controlled by the committee. Its longtime head was Andrei Molotkov. It was Molotkov who was criticized by Igor Albin for the numerous missed deadlines and unscrupulous contractors. Ultimately, in April 2016, Molotkov resigned his post, a job that is still vacant.

The Healthcare Committee employs one senior professional builder, Igor Gonchar, head of the Office for Medical Facilities Development. However, he deals with repairing and rebuilding the facilities his committee oversees. Since 2014, the Healthcare Committee has also been tasked with designing healthcare facilities. It was a seemingly reasonable step, meant to reduce the risk of drafting projects that were not suitable for physicians and had to be redone on the fly. In the last three years, however, the Healthcare Committee has not spent nearly 40% of the money allocated to it for design, i.e., 158 million of the 250 million rubles allocated in its budget for survey and design work.

Gonchar gave detailed answers to our questions, explaining that, out of eight planned facilities, the design work had been completed for six of them. Problems had arisen around a large project, estimated to cost 100 million rubles: new wings for Children’s Hospital No. 1. Due to the fact that, last year, changes were made to the law on historic preservation, the specs for facilities adjacent to historic Pozhelayev Park had to be redrafted. Similar difficulties have arisen with another problematic facility, the Dunes Children’s Rehabilitation Center. However, the difficulties having to do with historic preservation were in that case aggravated by the bankruptcy of the design subcontractor, Oboronmedstroy.

A view of the new campus of the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village
A view of the new campus of the Botkin Infectious Diseases Hospital in Petersburg. Photo courtesy of Dima Tsyrencshikov/The Village

Sabotage

One of the most unpleasant consequences of delaying when medical facilities are brought on line is the premature purchase of expensive medical equipment. For when a senior official says a hospital or clinic is about to open, his underlings will willy-nilly have to purchase CT scanners and MRI machines. But then no one is responsible for the fact they have to spend several years in a warehouse, where they are not only of no use to patients but also run through their warranties and sometimes even are damaged due to improper storage conditions.

According to medical professionals, premature equipment purchases are also part of a cynical calculation by officials. They can report the city has already purchased everything a hospital in the midst of construction needs and demand its administrators move into a poorly constructed building.

“In my opinion, the people running the city are not very interested in healthcare, because it involves more political questions,” says Lev Averbakh, executive director of CORIS Assistance LLC (Saint Petersburg) [a private ambulance company]. “I think there no political will for it. No one says, ‘Let’s finish them!’ as with the stadium, for example. Besides, they have begun reducing the number of hospital beds available while changing the regulations. Under the new rules, not as many beds are needed in Petersburg as were required under the old rules.”

Another professional from the field of private medicine argues that Olga Kazanskaya, now the ex-vice-governor for social policy, and Healthcare Committee Chair Valery Kolabutin lack medical training.

Sergei Furmanchuk, co-founder of Hosser [a Petersburg-based company specializing in the design and construction of medical facilities], argues that problems arise when design work is done by people who have never done design work, and they do the construction work as well. He believes that each case has to be examined individually. However, it has to be acknowledged that having a lot of experience and even medical training, unfortunately, is no guarantee of impeccable work, as, for example, in the case of Rosstroyinvest and the Botkin Hospital, Petrokom or Oboronmedstroy, which is currently undergoing bankruptcy proceedings, abandoning several large healthcare facilities unfinished.

Translated by the Russian Reader

P.S. This article, its author, and Delovoy Peterburg obviously have a heavy axe to grind more against one faction of Petersburg city hall (still referred to as “the Smolny,” the headquarters of the Bolsheviks during the 1917 October Revolution). Normally, I would not translate and post this kind of potential journalistic hit job, although it does describe an urgent problem—the collapse of Russia’s post-socialist free healthcare system—more or less objectively, a problem I have touched on elsewhere in my translations of less dodgy printed matter.

But the author does signally fail to point out the role of Putin’s infamous “power vertical” in encouraging the lack of accountability among local officials, whether in Petersburg or Vladivostok.

Petersburg’s current governor, Georgy Poltavchenko, was first appointed outright by President Putin after the latter “upmoted” the city’s previous governor, Valentina Matviyenko, to the Federation Council, which she now chairs, after she had become deeply unpopular for, among other things, trying to ram Gazprom’s infamous Okhta Center skyscraper down the throat of Petersburgers, and flagrantly failing to clean snow from streets and rooftops during one particularly snowy winter, leading to massive residential property damage and a cityscape described by many locals as resembling what the city looked like during the 900-day WWII Nazi Siege.

Poltavchenko was later “freely” “re-elected” to the governorship in an election marked, as usual, by irregularities, running against a field of sock puppets that had been preemptively purged of any real competition.

From the get-go he has seemed more concerned with the matters spiritual and ecclesiastical than really running the city, which has looked especially dingy this winter, when it has become apparent that the previous street maintenance and cleaning system has collapsed altogether, possibly for a lack of poorly paid Central Asian migrant workers to keep it “affordable.”

Is is fair, though, to blame all local failings on the almighty power vertical? Probably not, and that is why I devote so much of this blog to Russians doing it for themselves at the grassroots, often against daunting odds and in the face of outright police repression. But their efforts won’t make a dent in all the issues they are tackling until the country becomes a real federation and power is devolved maximally to the regions, cities, towns, and neighorhoods.

In this light, it amounts to cynical mockery to repeatedly refer to President Putin as a “strong leader,” as the new Fascist Pig in the Poke did during his campaign and now after he has occupied the White Pride House in Washington, DC. Putin is not a strong leader in any sense, but his weakness has been especially apparent in the myriad ways his regime has disempowered Russians at all levels, making it increasingly difficult for them not only to solve but also even discuss the problems that concern them most.

Finally, I should point out that the original article in Russian features a map of the city marked with all the hospitals and other medical facilities built, currently under construction or abandoned under the municipal program described, above, as well as a table with more detailed information about each of these real, abandoned or planned facilities. I was not able to include the map or table in this translation. TRR