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Analysis & Opinion
31.10.11 Metropolitan Challenges
By Svetlana Kononova

It has been a year since Sergei Sobyanin was appointed mayor of Moscow, and polls indicate that Muscovites are generally happier with him than they were with his long-serving predecessor Yuri Luzhkov. But expert evaluations of Sobyanin’s first year in office are more mixed. Many say there have been negative as well as positive aspects to his work as head of the Russian capital, in areas ranging from economic management to migration and conservation of the capital’s cultural heritage.

Two thirds of Moscow residents said they view Sobyanin’s work positively, compared to one quarter who view it negatively, according to a recent poll conducted by the Public Opinion Research Foundation (VTsIOM). Sobyanin’s main support base is among those who are retired, have low incomes and vote for the ruling party United Russia. Most of those who said they think he is doing a bad job are young, have average incomes and sympathize with opposition parties such as the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Russian United Democratic Party Yabloko (researchers only asked about support for officially registered parties in the poll).

Another poll, conducted by the independent Levada Center, showed some other interesting trends. Although those polled also believe that Sobyanin is a better mayor than Luzkov, 59 percent said that traffic congestion in Moscow is the same as it was a year ago, and 60 percent complained that the work of the police has not improved. Half of those questioned said that the level of corruption in the Russian capital remains the same under Sobyanin.

The situation is reminiscent of a joke about Yuri Luzkov: “The ex-mayor asks his personal assistant: ‘What has changed in Moscow since my dismissal? Did they solve the traffic problem?’ ‘No,’ says the assistant. ‘Did they replace the monument to Peter the Great?’ ‘No.’ ‘Did they allow gay pride?’ ‘No. They only built a new planetarium.’ ‘So, why did they dismiss me? Because of a planetarium?’”

Experts’ analysis of Sobyanin’s achievements in his first year of office focuses on economic conditions, migration policy and architectural and urban planning in the capital. “Moscow authorities remained on course to optimize the budget balance. In particular, federal law number 83, which forces citizens to pay [state-financed organizations] for the so-called ‘additional services,’ is being used actively. Moreover, they are planning on introducing a new real estate tax, which may force many families and retired people who live in large flats to sell their properties and move to cheaper apartments. These regulations will probably be strengthened after the elections, as is usually the case,” said Alexander Osin, the chief economist at Finam Management. “But it is important to stress that attempts by Russian [federal] financial authorities to increase taxes during the crisis have struggled. So, initiatives by Moscow authorities to implement taxes on consumption might lead to business withdrawing into the shadows.”

Osin is also skeptical of the planned privatization of government-owned assets: “The short-term benefit – the chance to avoid increasing borrowing in the next year – is obstructing the long-term risks, which may make prospects of replenishing the budget from non-tax sources worse,” he said.

In terms of positive changes since the new Moscow city government took office, Osin pointed to the development of Moscow’s manufacturing capacity. “It is the Moscow government’s main challenge in the middle to long term because the capital’s economy is too dependent on internal consumption and loans. But the scale of this problem is huge, taking into account that the manufacturing sector of Moscow’s economy has decreased significantly over years of reforms, and it now produces no more than five to ten percent of the city’s gross regional product. In this case, the success of the Moscow government’s policy will depend on help from federal authorities and potential budget reform, which aims to increase non-taxation ways to enrich the treasury,” he predicted.

Ella Levkovskaya, manager of the “Migration Barometer in the Russian Federation” project at the New Eurasia Foundation, commented on the new Moscow government’s migration policy:

“Sobyanin’s attitude to migration policy mirrors fluctuations in the general policy of federal authorities, which is in line with pre-election campaigning. On the one hand, both the president and the prime minister agree that Russia will need to cover a labor deficit of ten million people by 2025. On the other hand, nobody wants to assume responsibility and abolish work quotas or grant migrants amnesty, given that the number of illegal migrants in the country is estimated to be from four to 12 million, according to different experts,” she said. “The legislative initiative [of Moscow authorities] seems controversial. A decision to free employers from obligatory social taxes for migrant workers makes conditions for migrants worse. They will automatically lose their rights to medical insurance and pension savings.”

Dmitry Lisitsyn, the coordinator of the public movement Archnadzor, which supports the preservation of historical sites and cultural heritage in Moscow, said the new administration’s first year of work has been both positive and negative. “As soon as Sobyanin became mayor he scrapped construction of the ‘Donstroy’ complex at the former Khitrov Square – maybe this place will appear on the Moscow map again. Moreover, Moscow authorities took a decision to develop urban-planning regulations at the city’s expense, and not using the budgets of private investors as used to be the case. Urban-planning regulations in the historical part of the city will come under the control of the Department of Moscow Cultural Heritage. These actions aim to decrease pressure from the construction sector on Moscow’s historical heritage,” he said.

But Lisitsyn also noted that the Sobyanin administration has not been able to fully recover from the burden of bad decisions made by its predecessors. “More than ten historical buildings in Moscow, including the mansion of the Chakhovsky princes and the Cathedral Mosque, were destroyed during the first year of the new mayor’s government. A committee authorized to demolish historical buildings has been restored and empowered. Work on expanding the list of items of historical and cultural heritage which need state protection has stopped – more than 2,000 buildings are waiting for their status to change,” Lisitsyn said.
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