Moscow's middle class wakes up to rights

Thousands hold street protests against plan to demolish their Soviet-era apartments

Moscow city legislator Yelena Shuvalova addressing residents protesting against the demolition plan, including Ms Kari Guggenberger (second from right in picture). "They forgot about us, the middle class," said Ms Guggenberger, who bought her apartme
Moscow city legislator Yelena Shuvalova addressing residents protesting against the demolition plan, including Ms Kari Guggenberger (second from right in picture). "They forgot about us, the middle class," said Ms Guggenberger, who bought her apartment - her first - in 2010 with savings from her IT job.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

MOSCOW • When he ran for president in 2012, Mr Vladimir Putin wrote that Russia's "middle class has to grow".

Ms Kari Guggenberger is exactly the kind of person he had in mind. An IT manager, she fits Mr Putin's definition - "a skilled worker" whose income allows her "a certain freedom" to choose "how to spend" her money and "where to work". And, also, where to live.

Ms Guggenberger accepted the bargain Mr Putin has tacitly offered Russia's middle class: She's worked hard, bought herself a home, saved and spent money, and stayed out of politics, while the Kremlin consolidated its control over all levels of government. Ms Guggenberger would have been content for it to remain that way, too - until the government came at her where she lives.

She is one of 1.6 million Muscovites who could be affected by a plan to demolish their Soviet-era apartment buildings and replace them with modern high-rises. Moscow authorities say the old buildings are beyond repair and this massive relocation will bring much-needed improvements to city housing.

But to thousands of residents like Ms Guggenberger, the plan amounts to a violation of their rights to own property and to choose where to live. With the mayor's office, city and federal legislatures, and the courts all in the hands of Putin loyalists, opponents feel powerless to stop the demolition of their homes.

So they have broken their end of the bargain. They have held street protests that have brought out thousands. They have used social media to organise a campaign to keep their homes and have bombarded lawmakers with letters. A crowd of them locked arms and chanted "Shame!" outside Russia's Lower House of Parliament last Friday as lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the project. Many opponents plan to join a nationwide protest today, called by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.

"I was always far from politics, but they've driven me into the opposition," Ms Guggenberger, 35, said in a recent interview.

Saving her earnings from her IT job, she bought her apartment, her first, in a low-rise neighbourhood just north of Moscow's centre in 2010. "They made a very stupid move," she said. "They forgot about us, the middle class. They forgot because we have been busy with our lives. We don't vote, we don't strike, we live our lives. We weren't noticed. They just forgot about us."

The apartment owners' protest is the latest in a wave of upheaval not seen in Russia since 2012. In recent months, a nationwide demonstration against corruption drew tens of thousands, long-distance truckers have been protesting daily, and Mr Navalny has built a small but growing national support base for his long-shot bid for the presidency.

This turbulence is not likely to prevent Mr Putin, whose approval rating hasn't been below 80 per cent in three years, from winning reelection next March, said Mr Denis Volkov, an analyst with Russia's independent pollster, the Levada Centre. But it does point to a fundamental weakness of the system Mr Putin has created. Russians see "a lack of accountability," Mr Volkov said. "All of the instruments of civic accountability - courts, elections, representative government, public hearings - are either fictional, or they have been suppressed."

As a result, Mr Volkov said, in dealing with the authorities, Russians "assume they are going to be tricked".

Mr Putin himself is "in a Teflon situation" because he has made Russians feel as if their country is a great power again, Mr Volkov said. For many Russians, he's the only politician who can be trusted to right a wrong. The manifestation of that sentiment is Mr Putin's annual "direct line", a telethon that allows citizens to bring their complaints directly to the Kremlin leader.

This year's direct line event is scheduled for Thursday. But Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters last month that Mr Putin, who approved the apartment project in February, will not intervene in the controversy between Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the angry home owners.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Moscow's middle class wakes up to rights'. Subscribe