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Analysis & Opinion
14.07.09 What Will Become Of Them?
By Albina Kovalyova

One of Moscow’s most active markets has been shut down in a bid to fight its criminal trade. But despite an understandable motive, the move has left tens of thousands of people unemployed – a staggering 100,000, according to the organization for federal Russian migrants. Many have been left homeless and without basic support. But is the closure of the market really the most effective way of dealing with its problems, and what will become of the newly redundant now?

The giant Cherkizovsky market in the northwest of the capital was heaving with traders and customers. But at the end of June its doors were abruptly shut to both groups. A soup kitchen was briefly set up for the many migrant workers who have lost their jobs, and in some cases, their homes. The president of the Organization for Federal Russian Migrants, Mugjamder Muhammed Amin has called on the Russian authorities to help those people who had suffered as a consequence of the market’s closure. “The current economic crisis means that the government must take action on behalf of the lower part of society that was employed in the market. These people have been thrown out on the street without any warning,” he said in a RIA Novosti press conference.

Despite the vast number of migrant workers made redundant by the closure, only three hundred people were allegedly illegal workers, according to the Federal Migration Service. Some of the newly unemployed are planning to move to the city’s other markets, such as the Luzhniki trade fair in the southwest. But it is unlikely that these markets will be able to employ the majority of people who have lost their jobs at Cherkizovsky. On Monday, workers at the Sadovod market in the southeast of the capital were reported to have come out in protest against an influx of former Cherkizovsky employees.

So far it remains unclear what the government intends to do to help them. The soup kitchen that was set up for the former employees of the Cherkizovsky market has now been shut down by the city authorities. Amin told the Echo of Moscow radio that “there is no reason known as to why the Moscow Main Department of Internal Affairs drove away the members who came to get some warm food. They detained people who had come to eat.” The official explanation for the closing of the kitchen was simply that it did not have permission to be there.

The reaction from the authorities has certainly not been helpful. Alexander Brod, a prominent human rights activist and member of the Public Chamber, told RIA Novosti that the closure of the market was “a breach of constitutional norms and the workers rights,” as the sellers were not forewarned that they would be out of work. But Allison Gill of Human Rights Watch said that although this is an ugly gesture, it is not a breach of human rights. “There are often official reasons such as not having an official permit for not letting events take place. I am sympathetic to the fact that many people are out of work. But shutting down a market for various criminal activities is not a breach of human rights,” she said.

Lena Burtina who is the deputy chairman of a charity for migrants “Civil Assistance”, is skeptical that the government will help the newly unemployed. “They will probably be forced to be out of work, or else have to be employed illegally,” she said.

There have been plans to shut down the Cherkizovsky market for several years. Criminal activity including smuggling, and poor quality storage of goods made the government determined to set new standards. The market was closed on June 28 until further notice, after the state consumer monitoring service Rozpotrebnozor found various violations in the ways that the market operated.

This was the official reason for the closure that Nikolai Evtihiev, the prefect of the Eastern District of Moscow, gave to the Komsomolskaya Pravda daily. “We gave the order to close the market for sanitary days so that all of the faults and violations could be sorted out. This is a normal procedure to close a market down so that the problems could be solved,” he said.

But there are other reasons for the closure of the market this year. One of them is a scandal regarding $2 million worth of children’s clothing found on its territory. The goods did not have the necessary registration, and were also found to be a “health hazard” (although it is unclear what the nature of the hazard was). And the market’s owner, Teleman Ismailov, has been accused of involvement in the market’s smuggling operations.

Another rumor circulating in the Russian media links the oligarch’s extravagant building project abroad to the closure of his market. Radio Svoboda proposed the theory that Ismailov had angered Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by opening a luxurious hotel in Turkey, while his home country was going through an economic crisis. That is a line that has also been picked up by the foreign press. The Sunday Times added that “a few days after the Mardan Palace opened near Antalya, Putin scolded officials for failing to make arrests after a raid at the Cherkizovsky wholesale market in Moscow.”

Some of these reasons make a compelling argument for a clean-up of the market. But Dmitry Yanin, the chairman of the board of directors for the International Confederation of Consumer Communities (KonfOP) believes that there are two other important issues that need to be addressed. One of them is the size of the market. “Ethnic markets should exist in a megapolis,” he said, “but if they were more compact things would be a lot easier.”

The second issue is regarding consumer prices, which are on the whole, too high in Russia, according to Yanin. “The comparison with the prices in neighboring countries gives rise to the temptation to operate illegal or semi-illegal businesses, and this is why such enclaves as the Cherkizovsky and Luzhniki markets exist,” he said.

Yanin suggested one answer would be for Russia to join the World Trade Organization and the associated regulation of goods and taxes. This would lower prices and the resultant demand for illegal booty, he said.

The government’s decision to close the markets is certainly in keeping with their pledge to fight corruption. But it is unclear when, if ever, the market will reopen, and what changes will be made, and move has hurt the most vulnerable section of society, many of which have lost their already low-paid work. The Organization for Federal Russian Migrants voiced their fears that without a plan to help the out-of-work market seller, the hike in unemployment could produce a spike in crime.
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