Moscow’s Construction Plan Exemplifies Corruption

Source: ReutersLast week, the Moscow City Duma approved a controversial fifteen-year construction plan that will reshape much of the city’s current infrastructure. The plan has provoked fear and outrage from Moscow’s residents, architectural preservationists, and opposition groups who fear that the “Genplan” will destroy many of Moscow’s historic areas, while simultaneously failing to address basic traffic and infrastructure problems.

A diverse array of activists staged a number of protests in Moscow in the weeks leading up to the approval of the Genplan. More than 20 protesters were arrested in a flash mob outside of the City Duma on the morning of the official vote. Also, Interfax reported today that even though the measure passed easily through the politically homogeneous Duma, 30 public organizations have formed a coalition to fight against the Genplan, including opposition groups, architectural watchdogs, religious organizations, art advocacy groups, and others.

The online newspaper has published an editorial arguing that not only does the Moscow Genplan spell out a death sentence for the country’s historic capital, but it also exemplifies the endemic corruption throughout the Russian government that allows civil servants to push through projects for their own personal gain, leaving the rest of the country to fend for itself.

Genplan For It’s Own Sake
May 5, 2010

The General Plan for the Development of Moscow is not meant to solve any of the actual problems of the megalopolis; it’s written by civil servants in the interests of civil servants, and will do nothing to hinder the city government’s commercial construction plans. It is a true encyclopedia of the rules and methods that govern Russia.

The Moscow City Duma approved the General Plan for the Development of Moscow [Genplan] in its third reading. It is the primary document for urban development of the city for the next fifteen years.

The need for this plan did not come as a whim from the Moscow mayor’s office; it was required by the Urban Development Codex. But in a sense, the Genplan fails to address any actual issues. Last summer (in August, at the height of vacation season), the city authorities held public hearings on the Genplan; however, the plan did not cease to evoke sharp disagreement within society. During hearings in the Public Chamber as recently as in April of this year, several members called the document “a death sentence” for the city. Nevertheless, the Genplan was approved, and as Moscow City Duma Speaker Vladimir Platonov noted, it defends the people and helps “to get rid of scandalous situations.” “Suspending the law would have been harmful to Muscovites, since the law defends their interests,” Platonov added.

The problem is that the only Muscovites in Moscow whose interests are defended are the Moscow civil servants.

The Moscow Genplan does not resolve the issues of how the city is going to deal with traffic jams or how it’s going to preserve its historic center. On the other hand, it does nothing to limit opportunities for the Moscow authorities (the city mayor will have to be replaced at some point during the fifteen years of the formal operations in this document, for purely physiological reasons) to hand out construction contracts on opaque grounds and continue to build the city up in a way that is profitable for the authorities themselves or for their developers. It does not put any barriers in the way of having another office skyscraper appear instead of another children’s playground.

Therefore, the quality of the Genplan is generally secondary to the fact that this document fails to provide a clear legal framework for the commercial interests of the city’s civil servants, who have become the primary driving force for construction in Moscow.

Overall, not a single large city in the world, especially with an ancient history, has been developed under an officially approved general plan, and ideas by city leadership for urban development at various points in time have evoked protest from city residents (one can read Peter Ackroyd’s remarkable book London: The Biography to become convinced of as much). But civilized development in large cities stems from the fact that the city’s executive government is accountable to the population, and, in practically all foreign megalopolises of the caliber of Moscow, is directly elected. And the experts on the mayor’s public councils on urban development have to opportunity to argue with the authorities, and sometimes even prove that they’re right. As an individual region (and not a municipality), Moscow does not have direct elections for mayor. So the population can’t argue with the mayor’s office, and the mayor’s office doesn’t want to ask the population how to better develop the city in the interest of its maximum number of residents.

It’s unlikely that even passionate supporters of [Moscow Mayor] Yury Luzhkov, of his family, and of his team of bureaucrats would deny that the Genplan for Moscow’s urban development can be summed up altogether in one phrase: “What I want is what I’ll get.” Moscow’s new Genplan doesn’t create the slightest obstacle for civil servants to continue this kind of urban development policy. So, it doesn’t change the situation at its core, and thus remains something that exists only for its own sake.

The Moscow government could easily do everything that the Genplan prescribes without the document itself: the few chances for lawsuits are vanishing, and in situations like what happened with the Rechnik settlement, the federal government intervened only after two dozen houses had already been demolished, and no earlier. Furthermore, given the importance of Moscow for the country’s political stability and for performing state functions, it’s unlikely that the Kremlin, under any president and any mayor, could manage a hands-on approach to urban development disputes.

That said, we need to be aware of the fact that the blatant disregard for residents’ opinions during the process to approve Moscow’s Genplan, and the lack of barriers for contracts to be distributed amongst their own, does not differ, in essence, from the government’s decision to give oil and gas fields to individual companies without competition, or from the actions by the St. Petersburg authorities to construct a tower for Gazprom – the notorious Okhta Center. In that case, as is well known, both the Urban Development Codex and building height regulations were directly violated – but the Petersburg authorities went on with it without batting an eyelid: here we have a political order, and we have the interests of the city’s primary taxpayer – the Gazprom corporation. And in today’s Russia, at any level of the government, the interests of civil servants and the companies close to them are higher than the law, common sense, or the interests of ordinary citizens.