In Tomilino

Tomilino
Tomilino

Public Hearings in Tomilino Snowball into Makeshift Protest Rally Outside School
On December 7, public hearings in the village of Tomilino on its incorporation into the Lyubertsy Urban District focused not on the announced topic, but on a confrontation between law enforcement and locals
Zhukovskie Vesti
December 7, 2016

Administrative reform in Moscow Region has come to Zhukovsky’s neighbor the Lyubertsy District, which the governor wants to transform into the Lyubertsy Urban District. The regional government and the governor believe this step will help decrease and optimize expenditures. Opponents argue that centralizing authority will simply leave the rural settlements without people to represent their own interests, which will lead to budget cuts and infrastructure collapse. Many experts argue that administrative reform of this kind is against the law. This, for example, was the conclusion reached by the State Duma’s Committee on Federal Organization and Local Self-Government. A similar stance has been adopted by members of the Presidential Human Rights Council. This, however, has not slowed down the determination of the governor and his team. However, others have not resigned themselves to this approach, and the residents of the village of Tomilino are a striking example.

On November 29, Vadim Lapitsky, head of the Tomilino village administration, resigned, and the independent website vtomilino.ru, which had served as a venue for expressing viewpoints opposed to the regional authorities, was shut down. Grassroots activists believe this was the response of authorities to resistance by locals to their top-down decisions. Indeed, discussion of the planned reforms has been the main topic of conversation recently.

The Tomilino town council decided to hold a referendum in which villagers would vote the reforms up or down, but this was met with objections from the Lyubertsy prosecutor’s office, which claimed that holding a referendum on an issue like this would be illegal. According to the prosecutor’s office, public hearings, which are advisory in nature, were sufficient to resolve the issue. A pressure group collected 2,800 signatures in favor of the referendum, but the authorities simply ignored the petition.

Ultimately, the villagers came to the public hearing, the only official event at which authorities had decided to listen to the voice of the people. However, the police, led by the police chief of Lyubertsy, were waiting for Tomilino residents at Prep School No. 18, where the hearings had been scheduled. The school’s large auditorium was unable to accommodate all comers. (According to the pressure group, around a thousand people came.) People stood in the hallways, and around a hundred people were left outside, since the police had barricaded the door. As a result, the people outside the school held a spontaneous protest rally at which they chanted slogans against unification with Lyubertsy.

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Meanwhile, in the auditorium, Vladimir Ruzhitsky, head of the city of Lyubertsy, initially tried to explain the benefits of enlargement to the audience, but in the heat of ensuing discussion he got personal. The locals also expressed their opinions emotionally, without mincing their words. In the end, a detailed discussion proved impossible. The majority told the authorities exactly what they thought, while the authorities demonstrated the were indifferent to these opinions and that public hearings were conducted merely to comply with procedure.

At the moment, the public hearings are continuing in Tomilino. Find out all the latest news at www.vtomilino.ru, the Tomilino group on VK, and the Telegram channel https://telegram.me/vtomilino.

Screenshot from the Telegram channel Vtomilino on December 7, 2016. “We’re opposed! 19:30.” “Ruzhitsky has threatened audience members with criminal charges if they continue chanting, ‘Opposed.” 19:31.” “Police are bullying people at the entrance. 19:36.” “Ruzhitsky has had nervous breakdown, is taking like hysteric. 19:37.”

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Downhill

"Lose weight with us. LPG from 890 rubles. You'll feel thinner after the first procedure." Photo by the Russian Reader
“Lose weight with us! LPG from 890 rubles. You’ll feel thinner after the first procedure.” Photo by the Russian Reader

Raw Materials, Grain, and Transport
The Russian economy has been shrinking and devolving
Pavel Aptekar
Vedomosti
November 9, 2016

As many experts had predicted, the inertia of economic policy has led to an ever-increasing shrinkage of the economy and devolution of its structure. In the last two years, the role of primary industries and the cargo haulage they generate has grown even more.

In the latest issue of Commentaries on the State and Business, Nikolay Kondrashov of the Higher School of Economics has calculated that, in the third quarter of 2016, agricultural output grew in comparison with the annual averages for 2014 by 6.6%, mining by 3.6%, and cargo haulage by 3.4%. During the same period, the volume of retail trade has decreased by 14.7%, construction by 12.8%, and manufacturing by 7.2%. According to Rosstat, real wages decreased by 13% from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2016. This has reduced domestic demand, purchasing power and, consequently, the production of a number of consumer goods and the tempo of new construction. Sales of domestic products have increased relative to banned or seriously inflated imported goods, but overall food consumption has fallen. The contribution of manufacturing, construction, and trade to GDP has decreased, while, on the contrary, the role of extractive industries, agriculture, and the cargo turnover they generate has grown.

It is extremely difficult to break away from a resource economy and get on the path of growth. It is impossible to radically restructure the economy without major investments. They are currently at a low level and, according Vladimir Nazarov, director of the Finance Ministry’s Finance Research Institute, they are unlikely to increase. Stronger guarantees of property rights are needed,  at least, for investments to start flowing.

We can take satisfaction in the growth of agriculture, which has received a good deal of government subsidies and import-substitution preferences, but it is unlikely to provide a robust multiplier effect: the agricultural sector is heavily monopolized, and it requires less and less manpower. Agricultural equipment manufacturers may still profit, but they face serious competition from the Belarusians. Given low economic growth, the best we can look forward towithin the current framework is a slight downtick in the primary industries due to an increase in retail sales and construction, notes Nazarov.

Some growth in the manufacturing sector can be attained through defense contrats, whose impact on demand and economic growth is generally quite small. Russia can produce a limited number of products that are popular not only in the domestic market but also foreign markets, but we should not expect them to be the source of structural improvements.

The Russia economy’s structural focus on extractive industries was also typical during the fat years, but then it was mixed with windfall profits from oil sales. Nowadays, there is no hope that oil will generate growth. During a crisis, we need freedom of entrepreneurship and the development of new sectors from the bottom up, thus increasing the demand for human capital, more than ever. Otherwise, human capital degrades as well. It does not take a lot of smarts to maintain pipelines and a small number of latifundia.

Translated by Death of a Salesman. Thanks to Gabriel Levy for the heads-up

Talk of the Town

You would be forgiven if you imagined Russia’s liberal, leftist, technical, creative, conservative and other intelligentsias were abuzz right now with righteous anger or triumphant glee about what the country’s air force (now officially known, bizarrely, as the Russian Aerospace Forces or VKS) has been up to in Syria and, more specifically, Aleppo, these days.

No, many of them are terribly exercised, in various directions, about the controversy over an exhibition by American photographer Jock Sturges in Moscow.

This was borne out by the websites of some of the country’s leading dailies this morning.

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The liberal Vedomosti, a business-oriented newspaper, listed its top stories this morning. The top story was entitled “Faces in a Queue for the iPhone 7”; the second most-read story was about the Sturges show.

True, Vedomosti readers are serious lads and lassies, so the number three story was about Syria. It was headlined, “Five World Powers and EU Demand Decisive Steps from Russia in Syria.”

Earlier today, I posted a few bits from the bizarre article about yesterday’s emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, published in the country’s other serious, formerly liberal, business daily, Kommersant.

Similarly, Moskovsky Komsolomets could not figure out what its readers would find more titillating: reading about how the VKS’s top guns were bombing Aleppo to smithereens or how astroturfed patriots were threatening the God-given right of every self-respecting intelligent to implement Dostoevsky’s maxim that beauty would save the world.

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By way of splitting the difference, this morning’s website featured a picture of a chap obviously meant to embody the most average-looking Russian bloke on earth, sadly contemplating one of Sturges’s blasphemous nudes, while a sidebar headline shouts, “Everyone [sic] Is Bombing: Churkin Thinks Peace Impossible in Syria.”

Izvestia has become a particularly noxious loudspeaker for the regime in the past years, so the front page of its website contained a fair number of articles and op-ed pieces chockablock with baldfaced lies about the bloodbath in Aleppo, but at least it had the dignity not to yield to the fake moral panic brewing around the Sturges show.

The relative paucity of Russian media coverage of the Syrian conflict and publicly accessible grassroots reactions was confirmed by the following completely unscientific Google search.

“Джок Стержес” (“Jock Sturges”) got 12,000 more hits than “бомбардироква Алеппо” (“bombing Aleppo”), even though, one could argue, the bombing of Aleppo by somebody or other has been a more topical item in the news for a longer time than Jock Sturges, whatever his longevity or virtues as a contemporary artist.

Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “Jock Sturges” in Russian, September 26, 2016
Results of Google search for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in Russian, September 26, 2016

When I did the same search (“bombing Aleppo”) in English, I got over a million hits.

Results of Google for
Results of Google search for “bombing Aleppo,” in English, September 26, 2016

Certainly, we immediately have to factor in the sheer numbers of Anglophone media and readers in the world. There are quite a few more of both than there are Russophone media and readers, and so one would expect to find more responses to particular topics of global interest in English than in Russian.

But what about the vox pop?

An even more unscientific survey of the Russophone segment of Facebook this morning (that is, the part of the segment to which I have access, amounting to several hundred people, most of whom could be identified as intelligentsia or quasi-intelligentisa) showed that quite a few people were up in arms over the Sturges show or coolly editorializing about it to their extended communities of invisible friends, while literally no one was writing anything about Syria.

This has been the case for the past year. Not only that, but I have shared a fairly large number of articles and opinions about Syria, including my own, over that time, and have elicited a total of zero likes and comments from my Russian Facebook friends.

Non-Russian friends, on the contrary, like and comment on these posts in the same numbers as they and their Russian counterparts usually react to the other, non-Syrian things I write about.

Maybe I have the wrong Russian friends, but my hypothesis is that “politically engaged” or “socially conscious” Russians are literally afraid to say or write anything in public about the Syrian conflict. They have the good sense to know that their president-for-life has sunken his teeth into this geopolitical chew toy and has no intention of unclenching them.

Hence, anyone foolish enough to comment on this catastrophic attempt to reassert an increasingly impoverished country as a super power might get themselves in trouble with the powers that be. Over the last year, they have been hauling in utterly ordinary people  on “extremism” charges in fairly large numbers for reposting or commenting on the most innocuous things on Facebook and its Russian equivalent, Vkontakte.

Even more telling, there has not been a single public demonstration in Russia against Russian military involvement in Syria during the past year—to my knowledge, at least.*

Again, this has to be taken with a grain of salt. The current Russian regime has gone out of its way to make public demonstrations and pickets an unattractive pastime for all but the bravest of Russians.

Still, the war in Syria is the central international conflict of our time, and Russia’s best and brightest have literally nothing to say about it, even though their nominally elected government has not been merely a party to the conflict, but has come firmly down on one side, arguably, the wrong side, the side causing the most damage.

I find this deafening public silence about Syria more disturbing than anything else happening in Russia right now.

* After I posted this, Comrade BN wrote the following to me: “In Moscow last year there were some very small pickets protesting against the war in Syria, and the people who organized it attempted to set up an anti-war committee. As far as I know, though, the authorities pretty much intimidated them with varying degrees of extremity into giving up.”

Russia Year Zero

Cat eating scraps from pizza box. May 24, 2016, Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader
Cat eating scraps from pizza box on May 24, 2016, in Petersburg. Photo by the Russian Reader

Zero Sum
When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes
Maxim Trudolyubov
Vedomosti
May 27, 2016

It is probably already clear to everyone that the implicit “social contract,” about whose existence it was customary to natter in the fat years, was a hoax. Rejecting political subjectivity, ordinary folks and not-so-ordinary folks, big business, and regional elites were able to enrich themselves and, in the consumerist sense, converge with Europe.

It was not, however, a one-off deal with a perpetually fixed rate of profit, but a protracted process. We voluntarily became political zeroes. We gave up free speech, the right to elect and be elected, and the right to demand accountability from our politicians, and part of the population gave up the right to funded pensions. But the unit of prosperity we got in return was given to us not as property but was lent to us. Now the government has collected the debt. The zeroes remain, but the unit will soon run out. The government has no other sources for funding projects, but unpredictable and expensive projects—military campaigns as in Syria, for example, and infrastructural projects like the Kerch Strait Bridge—are the whole point of Russian politics.

The authorities supported the population during the crisis of 2008, but by 2011, dissatisfaction with government policy and the Putin-Medvedev castling move had sparked protests. The Kremlin learned its lesson, and it is ordinary people who are now primarily bearing the burden of the crisis, not the state. Having surrendered their rights to the Kremlin, people will now have to surrender not only their pension savings but also their savings accounts and, so to speak, the fat they have saved up on their bodies if they do not decide to take back their political rights. People’s well-being is, in fact, the “source of growth” that President Putin has asked his economic advisers to find. Actually, he was kidding: the source has never been lost.

When the president, in May 2016, summons his economic council, having forgotten about its existence for two years or so, and says the country needs new sources of growth, how are we to understand this? How were we supposed to understand his proposal to reduce economic dependence on the oil price, which he voiced in the autumn of 2015? It is like offering to grow oneself a new liver after sixteen years of binge drinking.

The Kremlin has created the current situation by consistently rejecting any measures that could have, long ago, reduced dependence on oil and generated stable sources of growth beyond the extractive and defense industries. It is impossible to fix in a month what has been done over sixteen years. Moreover, the very same people have been summoned to do the fixing, people still divided by irreconcilable contradictions. What joint effort at seeking ways out of the crisis are Alexei Kudrin and Sergei Glazyev capable of mounting? The sum of their efforts will inevitably be zero.

It would appear this zero quite suits the Kremlin, as economist Konstantin Sonin argued in a recent interview with Slon.ru. Incidentally, efforts are also needed to maintain zero growth, and those efforts are being made. Certain malcontents might not like the “zero” economy, but the Kremlin really likes it, because it strengthens the power of the front office, where decisions about redistribution are made. When nothing is produced, all power belongs to the man who divides and distributes.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Hostel Hostile

Sign for the Squat Art Hostel in central Petersburg. According to an article in the March 2, 2015, issue of Ekspert Severo-Zapad, the city had between 1,250 and 1,270 budget accommodations, including 270 hostels.
Sign for the Squat Art Hostel in central Petersburg. According to an article in the March 2, 2015, issue of Ekspert Severo-Zapad magazine, the city had between 1,250 and 1,270 budget accommodations, including 270 hostels. As of today’s writing, Airbnb listed over 300 rentals in the city. Photo by the Russian Reader

MPs Plan to Evict Hostels from Apartments
But entrepreneurs don’t intend to pull up stakes yet 
Elena Gorelova
Vedomosti
May 12, 2016

At its Friday session [Friday, May 13, 2016], the State Duma will consider a bill that could ban Russian hoteliers from housing hostels in apartment buildings. Galina Khovanskaya, chair of the Duma’s committee on housing and communal services, had tabled the amendment back in September 2015. According to MPs, mini hotels violate the rights of residents in adjacent apartments. If the changes take effect, it will be possible to install hotels in residential buildings only after rezoning the spaces from residential to non-residential. Mini hotels will have to be equipped with soundproofing, fire safety equipment, and security alarms. They will have to be located on the first floor and have a separate entrance.

The ban would have a catastrophic impact on hosteliers, argues Yevgeny Nasonov, chair of the committee on budget accommodations at the Moscow branch of Opora Russia and general director of Clover, a network of hostels. A study conducted by the League of Hostels in December 2015 showed that around 80% of Moscow’s mini hotels and serviced apartments are located in the city’s residential housing stock. In Petersburg, Crimea, and Krasnodar Territory, those percentages are even higher.

From 2012 to 2014, mini hotels were most often opened in residential buildings, says Roman Sabirzhanov, who owns sixteen hostels, including the Fabrika and the Croissant. But residents dissatisfied with their new neighbors then began complaining and showered the prosecutor’s office with lawsuits. Seeing the risks of doing business in residential buildings, Sabirzhanov opened his own hostels in non-residential buildings from the very beginning. It is not always more expensive, he claims. For example, Sabirzhanov has invested 3.5 million rubles [approx. 47,000 euros—TRR] in a new, 225-square-meter hostel on Chistye Prudy. 40% of the money went for rent; 40%, on repairs; and the remaining 20% on obtaining permits and undergoing classification. As of July 1, 2016, all hotels must be classified, receiving from one to five star, while hostels will receive the the no-stars category.

Even if the bill is not passed into law, hostels in residential buildings will be banned sooner or later, Sabirzhanov believes. At the moment, big cities are in the process of being purged of dubious flophouses in the run-up to the 2018 World Football Cup, and hostels have been subjected to more frequent inspections, he says. Even normal hotels might get the axe, the hotelier is convinced. Over the past five years, the number of beds in discount hotels and serviced apartments has grown twentyfold in Moscow, and the major hotel chains that have been lobbying the ban on hostels are not pleased with this redivision of the market, Sabirzhanov claims. He advises hoteliers against making hasty decisions. For the time being, he says, they should operate as they have before, recoup their investments, clean up their premises, and settle conflicts with building residents. At the same time, however, they should think about relocating if they have the means, launching a new hostel in a non-residential space, and going through classification. In the end, you can close the hostel and put the apartment up for rent, says Pavel Gorbov, executive director of Re:Sale Expert.

Launching a small hostel in Moscow runs you approximately two million rubles, estimates Nasonov. But rezoning a space as non-residential is quite expensive for small businesses. Nasonov cites the example of an entrepreneur he knows who has been attempting to build a separate entrance for a store in a residential building near Vykhino subway station. (The procedure for obtaining permissions is the same as for hostels.) He has already spent 1.5 million rubles on construction.

Translated by the Russian Reader.

The Apocalypse According to Bastrykin

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The Apocalypse According to Bastrykin
The Head of the Russian Federal Investigative Committee Describes a Russia on the Brink of Disaster Due to 16 Years of Putin’s Rule 
Fyodor Krasheninnikov
Vedomosti
April 20, 2016

One of the pillars of the current regime is not inclined to see Vladimir Putin’s Russia as a stable country with reputable authorities, and people who are united around them and ready to face any and all tests. This is the conclusion one draws from Alexander Bastrykin’s sensational article.

What is Bastrykin’s Russia like? First of all, it is a country standing on the brink of collapse. Things are so bad that only extraordinary measures, described at length at the end of the article, can save it. If you take the article at face value, you might imagine the enemy’s “hybrid” armies are literally camped outside of Moscow, while in the rear the “fifth column” is blowing up the last bridge, and only a miracle and Bastrykin can save the Fatherland.

However, none of this is surprising, for in the Russia described by Bastrykin, our intelligence services are practically dysfunctional, while their foreign counterparts, especially the Americans, are powerful and omnipresent.  Bastrykin literally howls,“It’s time to erect an effective barrier against the information war!” This appeal even serves as the article’s headline. It follows that, until April 18, 2016, there was no effective barrier against enemy propaganda and agitation whatsoever, and Russia’s foes could do literally anything they liked.

The vulnerability of Bastrykin’s Russia is quite easy to understand and not at all surprising, for, according to the article, the country has not been very lucky with its population. Bastrykin’s Russia is populated by two categories of people. The first are gullible and prone to react unreasonably to the most trivial things. The second are unprincipled scoundrels, ready to enlist in any intelligence service, extremist or terrorist organization for money.

The first category cause a lot of trouble. As soon as these excitable simpletons read something on the uncensored Internet, hear an unorthodox take on a story or find out someone does not recognize the outcome of a referendum, they immediately join forces with the second category, carefully recruited by foreign intelligence services, and commence destroying their own country. So the first category should be isolated from everything as much as possible, while the second, obviously, should be isolated physically and, preferrably, have their property confiscated as well.

Bastrykin’s Russia is a permanent victim and helpless puppet in the hands of the US. In Putin’s seventeenth year in power, Bastrykin unflatteringly reports on “the shaping of a pro-American and pro-western so-called non-systemic opposition in Russia, and the spread of inter-confessional and political extremism[.]” The author has nothing to say directly about the president, which is odd in itself, for it transpires that under Putin’s administration all kinds of extremism have flourished, and thousands of Russian citizens have traveled “to areas of heightened terrorist activity [through] Turkey and Egypt, where they travel both directly and through third countries[.]” They do this, obviously, because life is no bed of roses. The rest, as I have already said, are just waiting for someone to stir them up.

What about the president?

“Enough of playing at pseudo-democracy and following pseudo-liberal values,” Bastrykin tells him.

The trouble, it turns out, is he has flirted too long with pseudo-democracy.

Judging by Bastrykin’s article, the upper echelons of powers do not expect anything good from the future and Russia’s people, and are openly readying themselves for a merciless fight against any encroachments on their right to remain in power. The head of the Investigative Committee has issued an explicit warning. Whatever abysses the Russian economy plunges into, whatever misfortunes come crashing down on the heads of its people, any dissatisfaction with the authorities will be interpreted a priori as a consequence of the activity of western intelligence agencies, as extremism and terrorism, and will be decisively crushed. Unfortunately, there is no reason to believe Bastrykin is alone in thinking this way.

Fyodor Krasheninnikov is president of the Institute for the Development and Modernization of Public Relations, Yekaterinburg. Translated by the Russian Reader. Image courtesy of Alexander Vilkin

In the Russian Hinterlands

The social structure of life in the Russian provinces is defined by the shadow economy
Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin have explored life in the hinterlands
Pavel Aptekar
May 28, 2015
Vedomosti

Provincial Russian society is divided into several quasi-estates, which are defined by informal features. Membership of “one’s own” set in the hinterlands provides access both to the fruits of the state allocation of resources and the benefits of the shadow economy, while maintaining an acceptable standard of living even when a person’s official status is low. The provincial lifestyle impacts how life is practiced in the big cities. The social structure of the provinces is stimulated by informal economy and the rent economy, and by the desire of the ruling class to preserve its privileges. Such are the conclusions of a report issued by the Khamovniky Foundation, “The Social Structure of Russian Provincial Society,” prepared by Simon Kordonsky and Yuri Plyusnin on the basis of research done by the foundation between 2011 and 2015. Soviet-era social statuses have been lost, and most residents of the hinterlands cannot clearly define their place in the new social reality. The new сlass criteria—level of income, membership of the civil service, entrepreneurship—are having a hard time taking root in the small towns and rural areas.

66.3% percent of the population, the popular majority, lives on wages, old-age pensions, and state allowances. The share of businessmen, members of the liberal professions, and seasonal workers (i.e., those who earn their money in places where they do no live) does not exceed 15.2% and is comparable to the number of outcasts (13.4%), i.e., prisoners, convicted offenders, and homeless people. Government officials make up another 5.1% of the population. The percentage of outcasts is high, but it should not confuse us. According to the calculations of Vladimir Radchenko, former first deputy chair of the Supreme Court, during the past twenty years, one in every eight men has passed through the prisons in Russia, and the proportion of men familiar with the criminal subculture is twice as large.

In the provinces, the individual’s position is a reflection of their informal influence, which primarily depends on their belonging to an informal group (e.g., a family, clan, street, professional community or gang). Official status and publicly declared income (wealth) are less significant factors. Simon Kordonsky told Vedomosti that upward mobility is difficult. People with criminal records find it hard to get decent jobs, while energetic businessmen and seasonal workers with higher incomes tend to emphasize their status outwardly, through the ways they furnish their homes and other superficial features. Yet they maintain informal ties with other local residents. Aggravation of relations can take a dramatic turn, involving arson, arrest, and even violent death. Local communities are willing to come together to defend themselves from “strangers”: from industrial and infrastructure projects by large companies, government pressure on local kingpins and leaders, and incursions by criminal gangs.

Provincial society is more fragmented and loose, argues Natalya Zubarevich, who researches Russia’s regions. She believes that Kordonsky and Plyusnin’s description of their social structure is too schematic, and that we should speak of ten to twelve large social groupings. But the current situation in the hinterlands is indeed largely a consequence of the informal economy, notes Zubarevich; statistics ignore it, but it impacts people’s unofficial status. Archaic economic forms are well developed in the villages and small towns: subcontracted manufacturing, with families and locales specializing in various forms of manual labor, and garage workshops where everything “from furniture to children” is repaired and produced. The informal and natural economies help the locals survive crises. The metropolitan centers and the provinces influence each other. The big cities export advanced technologies, contemporary lifestyles, and consumer standards to the hinterlands, but they adopt the informal practices common in the provinces, the unwritten laws, and the authoritarian style of relations. In turn, the growing informality of governance and the economy in the provinces is reinforced by the current political model, under which the ruling class has been trying to transform its unofficial privileges and group interests into law.