(Don’t) Pay Your Rates

DSCN4253A Petersburg housing services worker risking life and limb to clear snow off the roof of a tenement building in the city’s downtown. Photo by the Russian Reader

Russians Are Increasingly Not Paying for Their Flats
Growing Debts for Housing Services and Utilities Reflect Obvious Social Ills
Pavel Aptekar
February 21, 2018

The increase in housing and utilities rates, occuring alongside a protracted downslide in personal income, has produced an abrupt upturn in debts for housing services and utilities, and collections of arrears in court, especially among low-income segments of the Russian populace.

The Russian Supreme Court has published statistics on the collection of debts for housing services and utilities. In 2014, 2.1 million such cases were ajudicated by the courts. In 2017, the figure was 5.4 million cases, and the total amount of recoverable debt had doubled, from ₽60 billion to ₽120 billion—taking into account, however, the debts of legal entities that paid for heating irregularly. Nevertheless, these figures reflect both an alarming trend—utilities payments have increasingly become a burden for disadvantaged parts of the populace—and the unwillingness of the rich to pay the bills for flats they have purchased as investments.

Generally, the collection of payments for utilities and housing services proceeds calmly. According to the Institute for Urban Economics, 95–97% of apartment residents pay their bills on time, but an individual’s timeliness in paying their bills depends on their income, as well as the climate and budget priorities of the Russian region where they live. According to Rosstat, household expenses on utilities and housing services per family member rose between 2014 and 2016 from ₽1,511 to ₽1,816, i.e., by 20.2%. The share of total household expenses spent on utilities and housing services rose during the same period from 10.3% to 11.3%.

For the sake of budget savings, many regions have reduced subsidies on housing and utilities, which has seriously increased the amount of money spent on these services by local populations, says economist Natalya Zubarevich. For example, housing and utilities account for 25.8% of paid services in Kursk Region, while in neighboring Oryol Region the figure is 41.1%. In Khabarovsk Territory, housing and utitilies expenses make up 26.7% of the cost of all services, while in Amur Region, which has a comparable climate, the figure is 45.8%.

In 2016, housing and utilities expenses accounted for 15.2% of all expenses among the ten percent of Russian families with the lowest incomes, and 14.8% of all expenses among the ten percent of families who were less poor. People who have to scrimp on everything are often forced not to pay for housing and utilities simply in order to survive. However, according to Mikhail Men, Minister for Construction and Housing, some of the arrears are owed by the proprietors of apartments bought as investments, who do not want to pay the bills for vacant flats.

According to Rosstat, the total amount of money owed by the Russian populace for housing and utilities in 2014 was ₽111 billion; in 2015, it was ₽135.8 billion. Subsequently, the debts have grown more quickly. In October 2016, Andrei Chibis, Deputy Minister for Construction and Housing, informed TASS News Agency they had reached ₽270 billion, and in July 2017, Men cited the figure of ₽645 billion [approx. €9.2 billion].

This increase reflects an obvious social ill. Housing and utitilies fees are billed by private companies, who turn not only to the courts to collect unpaid bills but also to the services of illegal debt collectors. Such circumstances could engender serious conflicts, especially in small towns with poor populations.

Translated by the Russian Reader. See my numerous previous posts on the problem of debt in Russia.

Greenpeace Russia: The Far East and Siberia Are Burning

I don’t like environmentalists. Most of them are insane fanatics who have been victimized by terrorist organizations like Greenpeace. The sole purpose of such organizations is to troll big corporations and c0untries. 
Ilya Varlamov, popular Russian blogger, May 22, 2016

It Is Too Late to Put Out the Fires in the Far East and Eastern Siberia
Greenpeace Russia
May 23, 2016

Greenpeace Russia and the federal fire detection system have discovered catastrophic fires in Amur Region, Transbaikal Territory, and Buryatia that cannot be extinguished, because the country simply lacks the manpower and resources to do it.

Here are the data from the Russian Federal Forestry Agency’s Distant Monitoring Information System (IDSM) for a single major fire underway in the Shimanovsk, Svobodny, and Blagoveshchensk Districts of Amur Region. According to ISDM, the fire covered an area of 248,000 hectares as of this morning.

Yet, in its morning update, the Aerial Forest Protection Service (Avialesokhrana) mentioned less than 21,000 hectares burning in Amur Region. In total, according to these reports, 65,00 hectares are burning nationwide.

“If current trends continue, 2016 could be the worst year for forest fires since the beginning of the twenty-first century, surpassing the figures for 2003 and 2012 in terms of the size of the forest fires,” says Alexei Yaroshenko, head of Greenpeace Russia’s forestry department.

The area of just one fire in Amur Region is thirteen times larger than the size of the fires listed in the official report for the region and four times larger than all fires reported by officials nationwide.

The size of the remaining fires is difficult to calculate. Smoke prevents satellites from recording hotspots, and experts from viewing burnt black forest. However, according to preliminary estimates, it is also already close to three million hectares. Amur Region accounts for approximately a third of this area, while the rest is roughly evenly divided between Buryatia and Transbaikal Territory.

Such shameless lying in reporting has been observed throughout this fire season. No one will go out to fight fires that do not exist on paper, and this prevents extinguishing fires at an early stage. Now, when it is impossible to do anything, the lies continue.

“We have had problems with divergence [among reported figures] on the sizes [of the fires in] Amur Region, Buryatia, and Chelyabinsk Region, and there have been problems with Irkutsk Region” acknowledged Nikolai Krotov, deputy head of the Federal Forestry Agency. “We do not rule out the fact that political and subjective factors might exist, and information in one format or another is transmitted to the outside world in a different way.”

We should recall that Avialesokhrana’s reports are based on data sent to it by regional authorities.

Can nothing really be done?

Our country has been burning from year to year. Foresters do not have the resources and manpower to put out the fires, while officials do not have the resources and manpower to acknowledge the fires.

“The authority over forest management and firefighting that was transferred to the regions is at best subsidized by the federal budget at ten to twenty percent,” explains Yaroshenko.

Greenpeace Russia demands that foresters be allocated decent financing and released from unnecessary bureaucracy, and that lies about the fires be ended.

How do we calculate the size of fires?

To assess the size of current forest fires, Greenpeace uses MODIS and VIIRS satellite imagery and the FIRMS system for detecting hotspots throughout the entire life cycle of major forest fires.  At the same time, Greenpeace follows State Standard (GOST), according to which the area of a forest fire is defined as “the area within the contour of the forest fire where there is evidence of fire’s impact on vegetation,” and Paragraph 67 of the Rules for Fighting Forest Fires, which stipulates that “in cases when burning has resumed within five days in the extinguished sectors of a neutralized forest fire, the fire is deemed to have resumed.”

Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade AM for the heads-up. The paragraph highlighted in red, above, has been heavily altered to reflect the actual quotation from Kommersant newspaper article on which it was, allegedly, based.

Free Sergei Nikiforov!

Free Sergei Nikiforov!
Natalya Kalinina
November 6, 2015

On November 5, 2015, a public event in support of a political prisoner was held in Blagoveshchensk, administrative center of the Amur Region. It took place a week after Russia commemorated the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression, a week after Amur Regional Governor Alexander Kozlov had told the region’s residents, “Today’s date reminds us of the innocent victims of injustice, false accusations, and ideological wars. Our duty is to preserve the memory of the victims of insane political terror so that such things never happen again.”

No, today’s subject is not a rally in memory of the martyred victims of political repression in the Gulag during the distant 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

It is more trivial and terrible. Evenki leader Sergei Nikiforov has been thrown in prison after leading a protest movement of his tiny people in the Selemdzhinsk District. As village head, he had been organizing resistance to the expansion of gold mining companies attempting to take over tribal reindeer pastures and hunting grounds.

Sergei Nikiforov. Photo: Ampravda.Ru

Earlier, attempts by district and regional officials to close the village’s Evenki ethnic kindergarten were thwarted. Of course, without the unanimous support of his fellow villagers, Sergei Nikiforov could not have done this. But officials understood they would be unable to quietly seize Evenki lands, a real Klondike for miners, while the Evenki had such a “chief.”

Blagoveshchensk City Court sentenced Nikiforov, the father of five adopted children, to five years in a maximum security prison and a fine of 16 million rubles [approx. 232,000 euros] for bribery and embezzlement. The fellow villagers who were present in the courtroom have reached their own conclusions about the court’s bias. The court disregarded all the particulars that pointed to the defendant’s innocence, for example, the fact that at the time the bribe was made in Blagoveshchensk, Nikiforov was in Ekimchan, administrative center of the Selemdzhinsk District, hundreds of kilometers away, and the fact that the only witness was unable to identify Nikiforov in court and testified she did not know the man. Nor was the bribegiver arraigned. According to the Evenki, the trial was clearly a frame-up.

Nikiforov was convicted in Blagoveshchensk in late October of this year. On October 3, all the residents of his native village of Ivanovskoye who were not out on the hunt attended a protest rally in defense of Sergei Nikiforov.

"No to kangaroo courts!" Residents of the village of Ivanovskoye demonstrate in support of Sergei Nikiforov
“No to kangaroo courts!” Residents of the village of Ivanovskoye demonstrating in support of Sergei Nikiforov, October 3, 2015

You cannot fool the people. If the village head had really been stealing money from the already meager village budget, who would have come out to support him?! You cannot hoodwink villagers, as people who have lived there would know.

After the protest, the regional authorities kept a low profile. Nowhere in the media did anyone comment on the trial of the disgraced village head. A small group of Evenki woman managed to travel to the regional center, overcoming hundreds of kilometers of bumpy roads on an UAZ off-road vehicle.

The Amur branch of the Yabl0ko Party gave due notice of plans for a protest rally on Lenin Square. Officials made a fuss. None of them wanted to see Evenki waving placards under the windows of the regional government house. I was contacted and asked to move the protest behind a department store, “out of sight of the authorities.” Clearly, it would have been pointless to protest behind a department store. So we were forced to to alter the format of the protest, but not the purpose and place.

We held a series of solo pickets in downtown Blagoveshchensk. People stood alone at a distance of a several dozen meters from each other on both sides on Lenin Street in the vicinity of the eponymous square. Just opposite the windows of the regional government house, legislative assembly, and the public reception office of the Russian President stood women (wives and daughters of hunters and reindeer herders) holding placards with the slogans “The Evenki need S.S. Nikiforov,” “Free Sergei Nikiforov,” “Sergei Savelyevich, we are with you!” “We ask the Russian federal authorities to pay attention to the criminal case of S.S. Nikiforov,” “We want a fair trial!!!” “No to kangaroo courts!” “The rule of law, not a tribunal!” and “Put an end to political reprisals.” They hoped to attract the attention of authorities to the injustice perpetuated in the Amur Region.

The reaction of officials was unexpected. No, neither the governor nor lawmakers came out to meet with their constituents. Nor did the chair of the regional court or the prosecutor show up. No, it was much more tedious. Frightened by the female protesters, the officials summoned several pieces of maintenance equipment from the City and Trade Services Center Municipal Enterprise (MP “GSTK”). A tractor drove on the sidewalk back and forth exactly where the protesters were standing. At times we imagined that the driver (a young chap with a brazen face) was defiantly trying to run over the small, fragile women, who would barely dodge out of his way. The oldest protester later said that she had physically sensed the tractor was about to run her over. It was noticeable that the moron behind the wheel was clearly getting some kind of sadistic thrill from his attacks on the defenseless women. Despite the fact the tractor was driving on the sidewalk, no special warning signs had been set up to this effect.

As soon as the picket ended, and the protesters left the square, the special maintenance equipment hastily turned around and drove away. By the way, the policemen on the square were quite polite. They were not at all keen to detain us “protestants,” apparently supporting us in their hearts.

Of course, it is too early to say that a protest rally was held and Nikiforov will be released tomorrow. Of course, that will not happen. We need to do much more. Maybe the next item on the agenda is a trip by Evenki to the capital and pickets on Red Square? In any case, people are becoming citizens and learning to assert their rights in practice. That is worth a lot!

"We want a fair trial!"
“We want a fair trial!”
“We ask the Russian federal authorities to pay attention to the criminal case of S.S. Nikiforov.”
“The Evenki need S.S. Nikiforov.”
“Sergei Savelyevich, we are with you!”
“Put an end to political reprisals!”
“The rule of law, not a tribunal!”
“No to kangaroo courts!”
“Free Sergei Nikiforov!”

N.B.  I wish to inform Valentina Kalita, mayor of Blagoveshchensk, and MP “GSTK” head Igor Banin, United Russian party members and partners of ex-mayor Alexander Migulya, now under investigation, that actions aimed at disrupting a public event (to which every citizen of Russia has a constitutional right!) are covered by Article 149 of the Russian Federal Criminal Code (“Obstruction of assemblies, rallies, demonstrations, marches, and pickets or involvement in them”).

Finally, Igor Banin, the driver of the tractor, who spread dust and rubbish over the square today, deserves a bonus. The lad tried really hard to carry out your orders (which had nothing to do with the cleaning the sidewalk, as you know).wink

The wild municipal services tractor
The wild Blagoveshchensk municipal services tractor and street sweeper
A letter from Blagoveshchensk Mayor Valentina Kalita, dated November 2, 2015, and addressed to protest rally organizer Natalya Kalinina, stating that MP “GSTK” had planned to carry out preparatory work for building a “snow fortress” [sic] on Lenin Square for 2016 New Year’s celebrations at the same time as Kalinina and her group had informed the authorities they would be protesting there. Mayor Kalita therefore asks that the venue be switched to the area in front of the Central Shopping Center on the Amur Street side, and that the rally be turned into a series of pickets from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on November 5, 2015.

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