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Muscovites have been stumbling over piles of bricks for months as the Russian capital's asphalt sidewalks are replaced. But Mayor Sergey Sobyanin's pet project is taking too long and some suspect corruption is involved.
Muscovites in high heels prefer smooth pavements
Many Russians breathe a sigh of relief when August has come and gone, as it hasn't usually been the best month for the country.
In 1991, the month saw a coup attempt against then President Boris Yeltsin. In 1998, August saw the default of the ruble, and in 2000 the Kursk submarine sank, claiming the lives of 118 sailors. And last year, a heat wave in August sparked fires in peat bogs and forests, devastating vast swaths of land and choking the capital with smoke.
This year, Muscovites have another reason to be relieved that September has arrived. With the start of the new school year, sidewalk reconstruction in Moscow has been halted, with only a third of the work completed. Since May, the asphalt-clad pavements had been torn up and replaced with brick, around the clock.
It was the big summer project of Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who said he wanted to give the capital a more European face.
Running out of time
Traffic always picks up after the summer holidays
Until now, most sidewalks in Russian cities were covered in asphalt. In his first year in office, Sobyanin wants to leave his mark on Moscow by following the tradition of his predecessor Yuri Luzhkov, who adorned the city with buildings and statues in his favorite architectural style - a kind of neo-Soviet gingerbread.
Last autumn, Luzhkov was ousted after 18 years as mayor in an obscure power struggle and Sobyanin, who is known to be close to Vladimir Putin, was put in charge of the Russian capital.
Like his predecessor, who was famous for his autocratic rule, Sobyanin made the decision to spend 100 million euros ($143 million) on the sidewalk facelift without consulting the city's parliament or any of the committees.
The result is getting a mixed reception from Muscovites.
"Of course it costs a lot of money, but at least there will be a bit less money laundering then when asphalt is used," says Anastasia, a tax adviser, who is walking along one of the new brick pavements close to the Kremlin.
"That was the only reason it was replaced every year. But walking in high heels on these bricks is very difficult - you get stuck, they break. However, on the other hand I heard that the bricks will be robust," she adds.
The Association of the Disabled in Russia has also slammed the bricks. They say Moscow, which is already a very difficult city for people in wheelchairs, will be even less accessible with the new sidewalks.
Sobyanin is known to be partial to bricks
Sobyanin, however, points out that bricks don't just look better and more European. He insists they're also healthier and release fewer harmful emissions in the heat than tarmac.
But, according to Alexei Mukhin, an analyst at the Center for Political Information in Moscow, many people in Moscow think Sobyanin loves bricks for another reason altogether.
"There is the persistent rumor that Sobyanin's wife is affiliated with the main contractor responsible for the paving. But no one can prove it. So far all we can say is that Sobyanin and his wife have to examine their conscience," said Mukhin.
"It's no secret that when Sobyanin was governor of Tyumen, he [also] changed all the asphalt to bricks," he added.
However, that rumor could just be the result of a political campaign launched against Sobyanin by opponents in Tyumen, an important industrial hub in Siberia. That, at least, is according to the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta, a paper not generally known to be overly gentle in its treatment of those in power.
Most Muscovites don't believe Sobyanin's claims that his wife is just a kindergarten teacher. She reminds them of Luzkhov's wife, who owned a construction firm that was given numerous contracts by the city's administration.
Sobyanin has reason to fear that his summer project has failed, as supply problems and the slow and inefficient work of those paving the roads meant only one third of the planned 4 million square meters (1.54 million square miles) has been completed.
But Sobyanin's "brick revolution" is scheduled to continue in spring, if he doesn't have a change of heart after all the trouble the bricks have already caused him.
Author: Mareike Aden, Moscow / ng
Editor: Martin Kuebler