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Analysis & Opinion
25.11.10 Street Politics
By Andrew Roth

The dust has settled after government officials wiped over 2,000 carts and kiosks from Moscow’s streets in a whirlwind campaign during the first two weeks of November. Amid concerns over lack of due process, an oversight by the city government has further angered small business owners and organizations: no official order was given by the city government to undertake the massive campaign to close the kiosks. Instead, officials were acting under what they considered a “verbal order” from Mayor Sergey Sobyanin.

Sobyanin finally declared a halt to the action against street vendors on November 15, they will be allowed to work according to their current agreements until next year. Yet the fiasco has exposed the rift between the new mayor and local officials in Moscow, as evidenced by the “misunderstanding” over Sobyanin’s verbal order that some experts say the prefects used to their political advantage.

Government harassment relieved vendors of 500 million rubles, said Sergei Rak, the director of development at Markon, which franchises the “Stardogs” hot-dog chain. Markon’s business was disrupted by orders forbidding the company to work from its regular locations in the city. The company lost about a third of its active carts, and close to a million rubles a day. However, Rak noted that smaller outfits could be more drastically harmed by the officials’ restrictions. “We don’t only work in Moscow,” said Rak. “Losing our carts in Moscow is a very serious blow, but the company will stay afloat. As for a small business, they rent one kiosk; they’ve worked for five years in one spot. One day they arrive, and that’s it, there’s no kiosk there anymore. You lost your spot and everything you invested in it.”

The New Order

The crusade against street vendors followed Sobyanin’s first tour of Moscow after he became mayor in late October. At the Ulitsa 1905 Goda metro station he expressed dissatisfaction about the number of kiosks by the metro. When two prefects were fired later that day, the remaining bureaucrats took the hint and moved to put their own houses in order. Within days officials began aggressively accosting kiosk and cart operators, demanding documentation and slating kiosks and carts for closure and demolition.

Local officials have earned reprobation for their overzealous approach to moving vendors out, but Sobyanin also takes some of the blame for the stunt. His strong-arm tactics and the removal of the guilty prefects from office was a potent signal to the other officials. Nikita Kuznetsov, the deputy chairman of OPORA, an association of small and medium-sized businesses, said that it is difficult to know what exactly Sobyanin wanted the prefects to do, but nonetheless he demanded an explanation for the recent initiative. “Personally speaking, Sobyanin himself should soon show exactly what happened and say that either he made a mistake, or what happened was on the spot,” said Kuzntesov. “But in any case, someone should take responsibility.”

The crackdown is one of the first initiatives under the new mayor, who came in to office to replace Yuri Luzhkov. Kuznetsov hoped that the change in leadership would lead to a better environment for entrepreneurship in Moscow than under Luzhkov, and that the kiosks could be brought into the realm of legitimate business and “out of the shadows.” However this early initiative against kiosks has undermined Sobyanin’s image as a supporter of small businesses.

Some see embarrassing Sobyanin as a victory for the prefects who drove the crusade against the kiosks. Alexey Mukhin, the general director of the Center for Political Information, argues that there was not so much a “misunderstanding” among bureaucrats concerning official policy toward the kiosks, but rather the prefects chose to take an extreme position in order to taint Sobyanin’s image and strengthen their own positions. “On the one hand they [the bureaucrats] want to show that they are super-loyal in order to remain independent, and on the other hand they knowingly are pushing the order of the mayor to the absurd, in order to discredit Sobyanin in the eyes of Muscovites. This is an ambitious goal. The disfavor of Muscovites will make Sergei Sobyanin dependent on the bureaucrats.” According to this theory, Sobyanin’s aggressive stance was his weakness: it would be difficult to punish the prefects for following his lead, yet he took the heat for looking as though he had pushed them to an extreme position by threatening them.

Similarly, Roman Zhigulsky, the coordinator for retail trade at the “For a Fair Market” movement that supports the interests of small businesses, believes that local bureaucrats committed “an act of sabotage” by being clearly overzealous. He said their animosity toward the new mayor was based on loyalty to the “old Luzhkov clan.” Together they “discredited the new leadership of mayor Sobyanin and landed a strong blow against his public image.”

Yet Sobyanin’s public image is not seriously suffering because of the dispute over kiosks. While he has not endeared himself to small business associations, The Moscow Times noted that bloggers were split on the issue, with some writers supporting the better sanitary conditions that come with dismantling the kiosks and others feeling like they would be inconvenienced. On the Web site, a poll asking users if they support removing kiosks received more than 50 percent of the votes for and 38 percent of votes indifferent toward taking down the kiosks. And as Mukhin noted, the city will quickly adapt to whatever the new status quo will be. “Muscovites will get used to it,” said Mukhin. “Right now they’re unhappy because they’re used to buying cigarettes outside of their buildings. But they’ll get used to it, because they get used to everything.”
The source
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