Moscow divided over controversial demolition project | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 28.05.2017
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Moscow divided over controversial demolition project

The Russian capital is in a state of unrest. A scheme to demolish old apartment blocks has triggered protests that are putting the Moscow municipal government under pressure. Even President Putin could be affected.

"I have had expensive oak parquet flooring laid in my apartment," says Marina Georgievna. "Now when I am cleaning it I think about who would reimburse me for it if I am moved out of my flat." This is one of the reasons why the pensioner is against the large-scale demolition programme targeting old Soviet apartment blocks in Moscow. She took to the streets in protest on May 14. According to estimates from a DW correspondent, around 17,000 protested on Sakharov Prospekt against the local government's plans. A second protest is planned this Sunday, with an equally large number of people expected to attend.

Farewell to Khrushchev's legacy

Mayor Sobyanin wants to build new housing

Mayor Sobyanin wants to build new housing

Since Moscow mayor, Sergei Sobyanin, was given the green light by President Vladimir Putin in February, the ambitious project has gained momentum. The State Duma, the Russian house of representatives, approved a first draft of the legislative proposal on the project in April.

The project is mainly concerned with blocks of flats that were built in the 1950s and 1960s under the Soviet party leader at the time, Nikita Khrushchev. During the early days of the Soviet Union, they were thus popularly referred to as "Khrushchevkas." Most of them have five floors and no elevator; they have a cramped design and the walls are not sound-proofed. People had a love-hate relationship with these buildings, because although they fulfilled the dream for many of having their own home, the quality of the buildings was mostly terrible.

According Mayor Sobyanin, many of these Moscow buildings have, in the intervening years, become dilapidated. The plan is to pull down the old apartments and to build new, better-quality and larger flats. The so-called renovation program has been already running in Moscow for over 10 years, but is now supposed to be significantly expanded. According to officials, in the coming years this will encompass a space of around 25 million square meters (approx. 30 million square yards) and affect around 1.6 million citizens.

Between insecurity and hope

The plans, which seem at first sight to be reasonable, are controversial. The general attitude is that people are being sold a pig in a poke. Many Muscovites are afraid that, in the end, the program will mean that they are forced to move to a less desirable part of town. Others speculate that it could include demolishing well-preserved buildings in order to make space for new - and, in Moscow, particularly expensive - real estate. These people make up the core of the new protest movement.

Many apartments in Moscow will come under the demolition ball

Many apartments will come under the demolition ball

But there are also many Muscovites who see the program as a chance to escape from the misery of the old flats. One such family is the Semzovs, who live in the district called Ismailovo. This family lives in a 50-square-meter flat with seven people: Valeria Semzova, her husband and children, her parents and her brother's family. Semzova describes how the kitchen is so small that they have to take turns eating. They are looking forward to moving into a modern apartment. The Russian polling institute, WZIOM, with close links to the federal government, found in April that more than two-thirds (67 per cent) of Muscovites supported the rebuilding program, whereas every sixth person was against it.

Yes to changes, no to a project freeze

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Will Moscow's Krushchevkas be torn down?

Until the end of June, residents still have the chance to vote on whether or not they think their building should be included in the project. They can do this through a municipal internet portal, in special service centers, or at residents' meetings. Yet many criticize that the voting process is not transparent.

The protests that have been held so far have forced those in power to make changes. As a result, the Russian parliament has extended the evacuation period for the old flats from 60 to 90, and even up to 120 days. On June 9 the second reading of the draft legislation regarding the program will take place in parliament. By this date, or at the latest by the third and final reading in August, further amendments should be brought in. The Moscow government is leaving no room for doubt that the project will be implemented. Experts estimate, however, that the program could take much longer than 10 years.

Protests in the run-up to the presidential elections

Regime opponent Navalny at the anti-demolition protests

Regime opponent Navalny at the anti-demolition protests

One particular feature of the protests against the demolition plans is that politicians have not been welcome to speak at the rallies. Blogger and opposition leader Alexey Navalny  was present at the May 14 demonstration, but according to witnesses, he was led behind a barricade by police shortly before he was supposed to make a public appearance. By way of exception, another opposition member, Dimitry Gudkov, would have been allowed to speak, but chose not to out of solidarity with Navalny.

But even if the protests remain apolitical, they may still serve to stir up Russian politics. Since the strong wave of protest against electoral fraud and Putin's return to the Kremlin in the winter of 2011/2012, Muscovites have rarely taken to the streets in great numbers. In March 2018, a new Russian president will be elected. Putin's renewed candidacy is taken as a given. A social protest movement in Russia's largest and most influential city will not pose a danger to his re-election. But it may cast a shadow over it.

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