The demolition of kiosks and several small business storefronts continued in Moscow overnight Sunday into Monday morning. The mayor’s office ordered the tearing down of a total of 90 kiosks, small stores, and cafés near metro stations. The operation, whose purpose Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said was to tear down illegitimate construction around the city, started at midnight. But unlike a similar operation that took place in February, this one was announced in advance.
When the first “Night of the Long Backhoes” occurred half a year ago, the city was in shock. Without any notification, hundreds of the city’s backhoes went out on the streets in the middle of the night and started demolishing kiosks and small buildings near metro stations. Businesses were destroyed with all the goods and assets inside; some of them still had people inside when the diggers got to work. (There were no injures, however.) 97 structures were smashed that one night. In the aftermath, the mayor’s office declared that the demolished property was illegitimately built, and said that the city would look better without it.
No one paid heed to the fact that in Moscow’s center, where most of the demolition happened, there are few supermarkets to buy food, and the kiosks had became convenient grocery stores for citizens. Some of these properties had been in place for more than 15 years.
And while some of the kiosks were in fact constructed without proper warrants, most of them had legal permits and all the necessary paperwork. Before setting out to demolish the structures, the Mayor’s Office filed lawsuits against the owners and lost—the court found dozens of buildings legitimate. Thus, having failed to force the owners to demolish their businesses at their own cost, the Mayor’s Office just tore them down. Not a single business owner received a copy of a court decision which would allow the demolition—because there were none. No one was paid any compensation.
As people complained about the unannounced demolitions, Sobyanin memorably proclaimed that, “One shouldn’t try to cover oneself with flimsy pieces of paper, obviously fraudulently-procured ones at that.”
In demolishing the properties, Moscow’s mayor in one fell swoop overrode several institutions:
First of all, he overruled the court that stated that the property paperwork was legal.
Second, Sobyanin acted both as the prosecutor, in bringing the charges of fraud before the court in the first place, and again, the court, when he found the defendants guilty.
And finally, Sobyanin made it clear (for those who still had doubts) that there is no such institution as the Mayorship of Moscow; there are only personalities who occupy the position. In finding the permits invalid,
It goes without saying that Mayor Sobyanin violated the Russian Constitution, which protects private property rights. But in modern Russia, where President Putin in 2007 proudly proclaimed that “I will not be tempted to stay for a third term, I’ve decided for myself from the very first day of my work as President I won’t violate Constitution,” violating the Constitution has become standard practice.
As for the city’s landscape, it certainly changed. After the barbarous night, Moscow looked like parts of Syria after a bombing. Newspapers around the world ran photos of the destruction. The New Times magazine columnist Ivan Davydov quipped on his Facebook page: “If terrorists come to bomb Moscow, Sobyanin is well-prepared; he has destroyed everything. A flattened field all around. Check and checkmate, terrorists!”
The first “Night of the Long Backhoes” resulted in the loss of a hundred businesses and more then two thousand jobs (all in the midst of a financial crisis), and dozens of ongoing lawsuits. And what has taken the place of the “hellholes”, as the former head of the Presidential Administration and now Presidential Eco-Envoy Sergey Ivanov called them? In some places, monstrous metal public art sculptures have sprung up; in other places, the Russian Orthodox Church wants to build churches (convenient ones, obviously); and the Moscow metro has called for the construction of additional parking lots.
By its second crusade against the kiosks, it must be said, the Mayor’s Office was better prepared for the public outcry. Business owners were offered compensations $780 per square meter for those who didn’t wish to tear down their businesses at their own cost—and $840 for those who do. Thirty businessmen refused to accept the offer and will keep fighting for their property. And the victims of the first crusade were also offered some consolation: Mayor Sobyanin promised to build new kiosks out of the city’s budget, and to organize auctions for leasing them. Those who had lost their property could take part in the auctions—on a non-preferential basis.