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Friday, Jan. 18, 2013

Moscow's not-so-friendly environmental quirks


MOSCOW — Moscow, they say, "wasn't built at one go" — in contrast to St. Petersburg, which emerged laid out, as if by magic, in strict conformity to Peter the Great's plan — and it has been growing chaotically for more than 800 years on seven gently sloping hills surrounding the river of the same name.

Today, Moscow is an agglomeration of about 12 million people, with more than 1 million visitors coming and leaving each day. Modern suburbs are marching ever farther from the 110-km-long road ringing the original city, while a recently adopted new expansion plan for the capital is aimed at doubling the city's size, thus making it possible to move official institutions away from the historic city center.

However, the future of this grandiose plan is seen as misty at best. Expenditures necessary for the development of corresponding transport infrastructure alone are estimated at 600 billion rubles.

In August, President Vladimir Putin called the first meeting of high officials to discuss the future of the Moscow expansion plan. Among other things, he pointed out that preparation for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vladivostok (held last September) was costly, "to say nothing of the armaments state program."

Meanwhile, it has become clear that without the prospect of a mass migration of officialdom to new quarters — in areas around Moscow forecast to grow — the entire plan loses its raison d'etre.

From 1992 to 2010, the head of the Moscow administration and the city mayor was Yury Luzhkov — a well-known politician in President Boris Yeltsin's circle. During his time, Moscow's economy visibly expanded, though city development was very uneven and involved many conflicts between the planners and the residents.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the number of private cars in Moscow rose by 150,000 to 200,000 per year, creating severe traffic problems.

Under Luzhkov, the city transport system underwent some redesign, although it didn't help much.

Now, under new Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, road construction in Moscow has reached new dimensions. Is it solving the problem? Hardly. One could even argue that never-ending road work around the city has only multiplied troubles for car owners.

Traffic jams represent the inevitable consequence of many mega-policies, and in Moscow, as some experts say, the situation looks especially hopeless and unpredictable. Rush hour or not, you never know if you will reach your destination in, say, two hours or in five.

To the faults of the former mayor may be added his blatant disregard of the interests of ordinary citizens as well as small businesses even as he manipulated regulations for street kiosks, small eateries, individual garages and the like.

Under Luzhkov, such local policies were constantly reshuffled.

For example, you might be invited to put up a small garage chosen from a wide variety constructed of corrugated metal — only to find those garages outlawed and subject to immediate removal the following week while some lucky birds were offered another, much lighter, half-open, green-colored variety.

Officially such changes in fashion were undertaken to achieve a more "standardized look" for yards and small streets, but the most probable aim was to please "friendly" companies producing those green-colored boxes.

After Luzhkov's forced retirement, the "People's Garage" program collapsed. Investigators are now said to be preparing criminal cases against some of the main figures involved.

It is difficult to say whether the new mayor has his own strategy for city improvements or is just going with the flow. In my own region of Moscow, Savelovskiy, impressions are mixed.

On the one hand, the yard behind the house where my family lives has been radically transformed for the better. Grass lawns and flowerbeds have been remodeled and are well-kept (with the help of an army of migrants from Central Asia).

A new field for sports is well-equipped and in constant use by teenagers. Before, there was always a big padlock on the deformed gate.

Some changes are quite regretful. Less than a year ago, the spacious square in front of the Savelovskiy terminal offered its many visitors a wide choice of snacks and drinks at several decent-looking kiosks, fast-food stalls and small restaurants. They're all gone now, destroyed. The three Stardog stalls and at least two small cafes on the 500-meter stretch from the metro station to my home also have disappeared.

Revisiting the famous Sokolniki recreation park, I discovered the same trend: the disappearance of kiosks and small eateries.

At Timiryazevsky market — a big area for stalls where ordinary people for years used to buy household articles and materials for apartment repair at reasonable prices — the gates are locked amid rumors the market will be closed. There are "war" casualties, it seems, among small businesses almost every day.

Are we in the process of a major renovation campaign that will bring back such amenities only raised to a new level? Or does the mayor intend to return Moscow to Soviet times when private markets were semi-legal at best?

Or maybe all of this is — together with the recent ban on selling beer by street kiosks — simply a further effort to monopolize city trade.

One thing is clear: Like his predecessor, Sobyanin is preoccupied with giving the capital a standardized and somehow pompous — "imperial" — look.

If I were challenged to name a single drawback in the Moscow administration's social and economic policies, I would not hesitate: What the city (and the country, for that matter) lacks most of all are friendly, stable policies that are supportive of small businesses, families and individual citizens.

One can tell that Moscow is still lacking the relaxed and easygoing atmosphere and conveniences of other European capitals like Prague, Paris, Berlin and London.

Andrey Borodaevskiy (annabo36@mail.ru), an expert on world economy and international economic relations, was a professor at Seinan Gakuin University, Fukuoka, from 1994 to 2007.


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