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.”

How the Partisans of Suna Have Spooked Karelian Officials

Everyone shall have the right to [a] favourable environment, reliable information about its state and […] restitution of damage inflicted on his health and property by ecological transgressions.
Article 42, Constitution of the Russian Federation

How the Partisans of Suna Have Spooked Karelian Officials
Valery Potashov
Bilberry (Muistoi.ru)
February 7, 2017

The so-called partisans of Suna, defenders of Suna Forest. Photo courtesy of Inna Kondrakova

It seems the Presidential Human Rights Council’s visit to Karelia, scheduled for February 8, has frightened the republic’s authorities so much that they have made every possible effort, if not to disrupt the council members’ meeting with the defenders of Suna Forest, who for several years running have been trying to assert their constitutional right to a healthy environment, then, at least, to discredit their better-known activists. Several days before the HRC’s on-site meeting, Karelian news websites loyal to the republic’s leadership published articles, written under pseudonyms, meant to persuade the council members that the conflict over Suna Forest had been “sparked” not by the pensioners from the village of Suna, who are opposed to clear-cutting to make way for a sand and gravel quarry in a forest where villagers have traditionally harvested mushrooms, berries, and medicinal herbs. And during a February 6 meeting with members of the Karelian Legislative Assembly, Alexander Hudilainen, head of the republic, stated outright it was not the village’s pensioners who were standing watch in the forest in winter, but young people whom someone had supposedly “stimulated.”

Alexander Hudilainen, head of the Republic of Karelia meets with members of the republic’s parliament. Photo courtesy of gov.karelia.ru

Actually, we could expect nothing else from the current governor of Karelia. Several years ago, when a grassroots campaign calling for his resignation kicked off in the republic, Mr. Hudilainen saw the machinations of “foreign special services” in the mass protests of the Karelian people. However, when a resident of the town of Kondopoga phoned the governor live on Russian Public Television (OTR) and asked him what solution he saw to the issue of Suna Forest, Hudilainen promised to “sort out” the situation.

“We will not allow the environment and the residents to be hurt,” the head of Karelia told the entire country.

A question about the Suna Forest “spoiled” the mood of Alexander Hudilainen, head of the Republic of Karelia, during a live broadcast of the program “Otrazhenie” (“Reflection”) on Russian Public Televisioin (OTR).

In the intervening two and a half months, however, neither Mr. Hudilainen nor anyone from his inner circle has found the time to visit the Suna Forest and see for themselves who exactly is standing watc in the minus thirty degree cold in a tent to stop the clear-cutting of a forest the village’s old-timers call their “provider” and “papa forest.” Moreover, when it transpired that members of the Presidential Human Rights Council planned to meet with the defenders of Suna Forest, Karelian officials attempted to move the meeting to the administration building of the Jänišpuoli Rural Settlement, which includes the village of Suna. But the so-called partisans of Suna insisted council members come to the forest and see what the village’s pensioners have been defending.

“Why should we meet in the administration building? We have been standing vigil in the forest for over six months, in the rain and the frost, and we will stay here until the bitter end,” said pensioner Tatyana Romakhina, one of Suna Forest’s most vigorous defenders.

Tatyana Romakhina. Photo courtesy of Alexei Vladimirov

Romakhina also told Bilberry that the day before she had got a call from the Kondopoga District police department, and a man who identified himself as Captain Viktor Korshakov had cautioned the old-age pensioner against unauthorized protest actions during the visit by the Presidential Human Rights Council. Romakhina regarded the phone call as yet another attempt to put pressure on the defenders of Suna Forest, noting the partisans of Suna had long been ready for anything.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Koganzon for the heads-up

______________________

Residents of the Village of Suna Address President Vladimir Putin (October 2016)

Biysk Plywood Workers Strike Successfully for Back Pay

The Match Flares Up
MPRA
January 26, 2017

Petroneft-Biysk LLC has nothing to do with so-called black gold. As the company’s website reports, it is the legal successor to the Biysk Plywood and Match Mill, known to Biysk residents as the Match. The Match mainly produces plywood. On January 12, around 200 workers in the plywood facility went on strike, demanding payment of wage arrears dating back to September 2016. Around 300 people are employed at the plant.

Photo courtesy of amic

According to local media, back wages were the cause of the conflict, but the workers themselves talked about an under-the-table bonus. According to them, since new management took over the plant, it has paid a third of their wages off the books. In the autumn, the company stopped paying wages altogether.

Wage delays are not news at Petroneft. As early as January 2016, management had tried to persuade staff to be patient while the company got back on its feet.

“We appealed to people: if you care about the company’s plight and you can make the decision for yourself, we ask you to go on an unpaid leave of absence. We didn’t force anyone to do it. We asked them to understand and accept the situation,” Olga Fischer, the company’s chief economist, said in an interview published in Nash Biysk in January 2016.

A year passed, and the workers’ patience finally snapped.

“The whole plywood facility went on strike. We notified the employer and got everyone in the shop to sign a petition naming the cause of the strike. We got copies of the strike notice back from management, with a stamp and number indicating they had received it. On Thursday, we didn’t go to work. There was no pressure. The foreman relayed our conditions to management, and ultimately they put us on technical downtime,” a striker told MPRA Omsk activists.

However, the workers did not have to sit at home for long. On January 17, the employer paid six months of back wages to workers from the striking shop floors. Support staff, who did not strike, were not paid the wages owed them, however.

“Afterwards, that bonus was issued, but it was issued only to those workers who had been on strike. Now they’re looking for the instigators, but we won’t give them up. The minutes of the trade union organizing meeting we had do exist, but unfortunately it won’t go any farther than that,” said our source in the mill.

MPRA congratulates the workers on their first victory. However, their success will not endure if they do not secure it by forming a trade union. We hope the folks in Biysk will be able to take this second, decisive step towards fairness. Then the Match will kindle the flame.

Based on reporting from MPRA Omsk

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks again to Comrade Ivan Ovsyannikov for the heads-up. MPRA is the Interregional Trade Union Workers Association. MPRA is affiliated with the IndustriALL Global Union.

Steel Workers in Novosibirsk Go on Wildcat Strike

Techsteel facilities in Novosibirsk
Techsteel facilities in Novosibirsk

Employees of the company Techsteel (Tekhstal’) in Novosibirsk have walked off the job, organizing a wildcat strike. The reason for the protest is prolonged nonpayment of wages. According to the workers, they have not been paid since last July.

Today, it transpired that management had placed everyone on administrative leave. Although no one had signed any consent forms, and people had continued to work during this time.

Irina Kochkina, crane operator:

“We didn’t submit any requests for leave. We found out by chance. They rename [the company]: I don’t know what organization I work for. We don’t know a thing. They don’t give us our pay stubs. We go to management, we go to accounting. There they tell us they’ve been forbidden to say how big the debt is. Director General Mikhailov said the debts were frozen, and there is no telling when they will be paid.”

The workers have filed complaints with the Labor Inspectorate and the prosecutor’s office, to no avail. Today, they downed tools. The plant’s workers say they won’t go back to their lathes until they get their wages.

Techsteel manufactures steel products.

Source: Vesti Novosibirsk

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Ivan Ovysannikov for the annotation and heads-up. Photo courtesy of Top54

Tatarstan’s Zelenodolsk District: Pay Your Rates or We’ll Take Your Kids

Aerial view of Zelenodolsk, Tatarstan. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia
Aerial view of Zelenodolsk, Tatarstan. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

Children Removed from Families of Utilities Debtors in Tatarstan
Natalia Vasilyeva
Vechernyaya Kazan
January 12, 2017

Alexander Tygin, head of the Zelenodolsk District, has instructed his subordinates to remove children from families who have gone into debt for nonpayment of gas and electricity bills. Vechernyaya Kazan has obtained a copy of the relevant document, whose harsh wording could make even the most hard-boiled reader shudder. No one in Tatarstan has yet taken such a radical approach to solving the problem of poor families whose homes and flats are threatened with having their electricity shut off in wintertime due to unpaid utilities bills.

“The children’s protective services of the Zelenodolsk Municipal District executive committee should be ready to remove minor children living in dwellings in debt for energy bills,” read the official instructions, signed by Alexander Tygin after a staff meeting on December 12, 2016. Short and to the point, as they say. Readers are free to interpret the instructions as they fancy. Will the children be removed forever from the families of debtors or only for the winter, keeping the minors from freezing in houses in which the heating has been turned off or burning to death in a fire? According to our information, in December, two children from families of debtors in the Zelenodolsk District were taken into care.

Copy of Alexander Tygin’s instructions. Courtesy of Vechernyaya Kazan

The problem of families in persistent default on their payments for utilities and housing services became a serious matter in January 2016, after the tragedy in the village of Staryi Kuvak in the Leninogorsk District, in which 27-year-old Olga Zhuravlyova and her five children, aged six months to ten years, burned to death in their own home. It was discovered the gas supply to the house had been turned off since August 2013 without a court order, and the family had been heating the house with electric heaters and a wood stove, the cause of the tragedy. In addition, it transpired the Zhuravlovs had earlier been registered as a vulnerable family, but shortly before the tragedy they have been removed from the registry.

At the time, Tatarstan President Rustam Minnikhanov harshly criticized district officials for “short-sighted actions” and ordered the republic’s government to improve how it worked with vulnerable families in debt. After the tragedy in the Leninogorsk District, around 300 families whose gas and lights had been turned off due to debts were identified.

According to Guzel Udachina, ombudsman for children’s rights in the Republic of Tatarstan, a year on, the president’s orders have not been forgotten at the local level.

“Since last winter, the republic’s towns and districts have worked systematically to identify problem families and restructure their debts,” said Udachina, noting, however, that she did not have statistics for the oversight work.

As Vechernyaya Kazan discovered, the Leninogorsk District checks on a quarterly basis whether families with children have payment arrears.

“We regularly ask the billing center who has large debts. If someone’s debt has reached the critical mark, our social services go into action. They work on getting non-paying parents into employment, restructuring their debts, and searching for sponsors,” said Vladimir Druk, the Leninogorsk District’s deputy head for social issues.

According to the executive committee, there are currently around thirty large families in the Leninogorsk District who have defaulted on their housing and utilities payments. By law, energy companies can cut off hardcore debtors whether they have children or not. But our sources in the executive committee say they have an agreement with gas and electricity suppliers that if they decide to cut off a family with small children, they will inform the authorities in advance, giving them the chance to intervene quickly. Hence, matters had never come to taking children into care, the same sources assured us, telling us the story of a mother with four children who, due to debts and a broken gas furnace, found themselves in an unheated house during December’s cold snap. The woman was warned she would have to take action or she could lose her children. She quickly took the children to their grandmother’s. Meanwhile, the gas furnace was repaired for free, and philanthropists helped to partly pay off the family’s debts.

Our sources at the Zelenodolsk District executive committee told us they had registered around a hundred families with minors who had defaulted on their housing and utilities payments.

“During 2016, eleven children from such families were removed for up to three months,” said Alexander Korshunov, head of the press office for the Zelenodolsk District executive committee. “All these children lived temporarily in a shelter. Would it have been better to leave the kids in houses with no light or heat, where they were not getting the proper care? It is unacceptable for children to live in such conditions. The head of our district is quite strict when it comes to protecting minors. Therefore, our children’s protective services vigilantly check all familiies.”

“Just yesterday, I visited in a family in the village of Nizhnye Vyazovye who had defaulted on their gas payments. I suggested assigning the children to a shelter for the winter so the kids would be well feed and warm,” Ludmila Minnigarayeva, head of children’s protective services in the Zelenodolsk District executive committee, shared with Vechernyaya Kazan.

In turn, Tatarstan children’s ombudsman Guzel Udachina explained that arranging for children to live temporarily in a shelter or social rehabilitation center is permitted only with the written consent of the parents, not on the basis of an arbitrary decision by children’s protective services or by order of a district head.

“The orders issued by the head of the Zelenodolsk District are inappropriate, to put it mildly,” Udachina argues. “If it turns out the district’s children’s protective services have been removing children from families due to debts, their actions are illegal. The state has the right to take the children into care only in instances where there is a threat to their lives and health. It is a moot point whether having the gas or lights turned off can be considered a direct threat. If a dwelling is unheated during a cold snap, there is such a threat, of course. The child could freeze, become ill or worse. But local authorities can solve the problem without resorting to extreme measures.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Russkaia smert’ and Meduza for the heads-up

Farewell to Matyora

imag2621

Experts Predict the Closure of All Rural Hospitals by 2023 
Ilya Nemchenko
RBC
December 9, 2016

If the number of social welfare institutions continues to decrease at the same pace, there will be no hospitals in rural areas within seven years. Experts argue that all rural schools and medical clinics could be closed within seventeen to twenty years.

Due to “optimization” processes, over the past twenty years, rural areas have lost much of their social infrastucture, experts at the Center for Economic and Political Reform (TsEPR) have concluded. In report entitled “Russia, Land of Dying Villages,” they note the numbers of hospitals, schools, and clinics in rural areas will continue to decline in the coming years. RCB has a copy of the report.

Based on Rosstat’s data, the TsEPR has calculated that, over the past fifteen to twenty years, the number of rural schools had shrunk by nearly 1.7 times (from 45,100 in 2000 to 25,900 in 2014), the number of rural hospitals by four times (from 4,300 to 1,060), and the number of rural clinics by 2.7 times (from 8,400 to 3,060).

The upshot is that all rural hospitals could close in seven years, while all rural schools and clinics could close in seventeen to twenty years, claims the report.

“It is clear that this is not possible and that all ‘optimizations’ have their limits. However, there are fears that social welfare institutions will continue to close in the countryside in the coming years, albeit at a much less impressive pace,” write the report’s authors.

The optimization of schools and hospitals is often justified by decreases in population, although it is socio-economic problems that facilitate flight to the cities. The experts argue the government has deliberately pursued a policy of depopulating rural areas and has deprived the countryside of its “last hope for the future.” They call the current circumstances a vicious circle. Optimization of social welfare facilities has proceeded at a much faster rate than rural depopulation and the abandonment of villages.

According to the report, the rural population has been in constant decline over the past twenty years. This has happened due both to migration outflows and the fact that the death rate has exceeded the birth rate. The number of deserted villages increased by more than six thousand from 2002 to 2010, to 19,500. Moreover, less than one hundred people live in more than half of all rural settlements.

The experts note that while the number of depopulated villages has continued to grow in Central Russia and the north, rural areas have been developing vigorously in the south. In 2016, the North Caucasus Federal District had the largest population in terms of percentages (50.9%), while the Northwest Federal District had the lowest (15.8%).

The study underscores that the main causes of depopulation in the countryside are social and economic problems. The standard of living is low in rural areas, while unemployment is relatively high, and this has spurred a growth in the crime rate. The experts note that prices in rural areas are high, so country dwellers spend more money on food than city dwellers do.

Population outflow has also been due to the poor quality of utilities and housing. According to the TsEPR, only 57% of rural housing stock is supplied with running water, while only 33% of houses have hot water. The condition of the water mains in the countrsyide has constantly grown worse: only 54.7% of residents are supplied with safe drinking water. The experts note that only 5% of villagers have sewers. (This figure has not changed since 1995.) However, the provision of natural gas is relatively better. According to Rosstat, approximately 75% of the rural housing stock is supplied with pipeline or liquefied gas.

TsEPR’s researchers write that the government policy has concentrated capital, jobs, and people in the large cities, while attempts to maintain the rural population have failed, because there are no conditions for developing the villages. The experts believe that comprehensive socio-economic reforms are needed to solve the problem. Otherwise, the number of deserted villages will have increased by the time of the next census.

Translation and photo by the Russian Reader

See some of my previous posts on life in the Russian countryside: