Demolition of squatter kiosks: Triumph of justice or redistribution of assets? 

Demolition of squatter kiosks: Triumph of justice or redistribution of assets?

The Moscow Government has prepared a new list of squatter commercial properties for demolition. The authorities promised to demolish the illegal structures step-by-step, that is, not the way it was on February 9, 2016. The Moscow Government announced that the second phase of demolition will start overnight into Monday, August 29, 2016. Why are backhoes more powerful than laws, and who needed the notorious ‘night of the long shovels’?

It is easier to break than to make

The Mayor Sergey Sobyanin keeps his word, and on June 28, 2016, at the session of the Presidium of the Moscow Government, he requested to produce a new list of unwanted commercial properties. The black list including 107 items was published on the Mayor’s web-site on the same day. The officials promise that the Night of the long Buckets will not repeat. However, not only Moscow residents, but the whole country still can not forget about it. On February 9, 2016, at 1 am, the Moscow Government started demolition of illegal stores throughout the city. The reason for the demolition was the Decision of the Moscow Government #829-PP of December 12, 2015. The demolition list included 104 items; 97 of those had been dismantled by the morning of February 9, 2016. It is not a secret that numerous kiosks and cafes near subway entrances did not adorn the city and annoyed Moscow residents. So why did their demolition cause such a public outcry?

The decision of the Moscow Government was based on Article 222 of the Civic Code of the Russian Federation dedicated to unauthorized constructions. Paragraph 4 of this Article has come into effect on September 1; it allows municipal authorities to demolish unauthorized structures without a court decision if these structure pose risk for human lives and health or are located near utility lines. However, the main legal principle has not been changed: a court decision is required to recognize a structure an unauthorized construction. For several years the Moscow Government tried to pursue owners of so-called unauthorized structures in court. However, after losing dozens of lawsuits, including 48 items from the list of the 104, the officials apparently decided to forget about the inconvenient rules of law and move from words to action.

Снос киосков

Photo: Kommersant/Kristina Kormilitsyna 

Dmitry Gudkov, the Deputy of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, explained, that the Moscow Government has initiated, on the urgent basis, construction of gas pipelines and water mains near the disputed objects. This was used as a formal reason to demolish the structures. Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin called all ownership documents and court decisions in favor of the owners “pieces of paper acquired by obviously fraudulent means”. The heavy construction machinery have crushed not only walls of small shops, but also the inviolability of private property – guaranteed by the Constitution of the Russian Federation – and fading hope for judicial protection (which is also guaranteed constitutionally). The Constitutional Court has not made a decision yet with regards to complaints from the owners of demolished buildings. The Superior Court acted faster and has predictably supported the Moscow Government. 

Country for demolition

Many people had warned that the Night of the long buckets will mark the beginning of a new era. For example, Sergey Mitrokhin, the Head of the Moscow Branch of Yabloko Party, mentioned some unofficial demolition list allegedly including 364 items. This statement by Mitrokhin was taken skeptically because the figure was not based on any firm grounds. However, today, after the publication of the new list of 107 structures, the earlier words of Mitrokhin sound totally differently. In addition, Sergey Shogurov, the Head of the State Real Estate Inspection of Moscow, told immediately after the Night of the long buckets that the struggle against squatter properties will be continued. The methods used in this struggle can be illustrated best of all by Shogurov’s own words, that “an extract from the Unified State Register of Property Rights and Transactions does not prove the ownership right on an unauthorized construction and does not prevent the submission of a demolition requirement”.

However, Moscow is called the city of merchants for a reason – bargaining is always possible here. Currently there are two acts of the Moscow Government that include lists of structures to be demolished: the above-mentioned Decision # 829-PP of December 12, 2015 and Decision #819 of December 11, 2013. The demolition of structures in the framework of the Decision # 819 has always been performed only on the basis of a court decision recognizing the object an unauthorized construction. The list of structures attached to the Decision # 819 is continuously growing. The Moscow Government has estimated the scale of this process and decided to make some money on it. A legalization procedure has been introduced for owners of properties listed in the Decision # 819. Following an application from the owner, the Urban Development and Land Commission of Moscow considers a possibility to keep the structure, subject to the payment of fine. According to Novaya Gazeta, the amount of this fine may vary in the range of 7–30 thousand rubles per square meter, depending on the location. The cornered owners have no choice but to pay fines; the Moscow Government gladly accepts the money. Taking that more than 2.3 thousand objects are listed in the Decision # 819 as of today, the money-making opportunities are infinite.

The enthusiasm of regional officials, briskly taking up the Moscow initiative, looks even more scary. For instance, the official portal of the Sevastopol Administration has reported the demolition of first unauthorized structures as early as on February 12, 2016 and promised to demolish 938 objects in total. Basically, this is about small stores and kiosks. Court procedures have not even been mentioned with regards to the destruction of private property. It is unknown what will be built instead of demolished stores. Heavy construction machinery have already been used in some other cities – Barnaul, Kazan, St. Petersburg, etc. This summer, the Government of Crimea has encroached on court functions and recognized 241 structures in Yalta and Alushta unauthorized constructions. The structures, as well as their owners, are now doomed.

Equality in rightlessness

The Night of the long buckets has divided the society into two groups. The first group appreciates the demolition of ugly kiosks epitomizing the poverty of the 1990s and entertains sweet hopes: someone – for modern malls, others – for restoration of the Moscow historical appearance. The second group is looking to the future in terror: today the municipal authorities easily demolish small stores – who can prevent them from demolishing a private residential home tomorrow? We will not comment on devoted efforts of the Moscow authorities to preserve the historical appearance of the city. The wave of demolitions of architectural monuments and new developments started by Luzhkov has been successfully continued by Sobyanin. We would like to focus on the inviolability of private property – which is guaranteed by law, but, in fact, turns out to be totally defenseless.

Снос киосков

Photo: Kommersant/Petr Kassin

Most people believe that the mass demolition of kiosks does not affect their own interests. The Moscow authorities emphasize in every possible way the questionable past of businessmen whose stores have been demolished. Their point is: we could not do this legally, but did this rightfully. Of course, the owners of demolished structures are not poor people. And all these shops, bistros, and pharmacies are not their only sources of income. But who can guarantee that only the kiosks from the 1990s are to be demolished? Taking how the authorities interpret Article 222 of the Civic Code of the Russian Federation, backhoe shovels may soon rise over the cottage amnesty.

Actually, when Deputies of the State Duma were approving this amendment, they did not make a secret of the upcoming audit of countryside cottages throughout the country. Pavel Krasheninnikov, the Head of the Committee for Civic, Criminal, Arbitration, and Processual Legislation of the State Duma, said at the plenary session of the Parliament on July 3, 2015: “Initially it was intended to resolve the issue with unauthorized buildings only in these two regions (the Republic of Crimea and federal-level City of Sevastopol – the CrimeRussia), but upon further analysis and elaboration of the issue, we have decided to expand this regulation to the whole territory of Russia, which is right: we know enormous numbers of situations when hotels or plants had been erected on lots of 600 square meters”. Today you see the construction machinery in TV news, but tomorrow it might come for your tiny cottage because someone has decided that it is a canning factory.

Will there be a garden city here?

So, whose interests did the Night of the long buckets serve? To mitigate his unforgettable words about “pieces of paper acquired by fraudulent means”, Sobyanin has promised Moscow residents to create nice parks and garden squares instead of demolished cafes, pharmacies, and shops. However, no specific urban greening projects have been presented as of yet. The Russian Orthodox Church has also provided its vision of city improvement: the Archpriest Dmitry Smirnov, the Chairman of the Church Commission for Family and Protection of Motherhood and Childhood, suggested to build churches on the place of former kiosks.

While the Mayor’s Office promises to plant gardens, some more real projects appear on the horizon. And these projects have started a while ago. A tender to develop design projects for a number of transit and transfer hubs (TTH) had been opened back in 2014. We would like to note that the demolition of so-called unauthorized construction concentrates around such subway stations as Teply Stan, Volzhskaya, Prospect Vernadskogo, Ulitsa 1905 Goda, etc. In the same year, the Moscow Committee for Architecture and Urban Development has issued the instruction #22 of March 6, 2014 “On approval of borders for planned construction zones of TTH facilities”, which lists the future transit and transfer hubs. This document can provide tons of interesting data, for example, how many green zones will be eaten by the transit and transfer hubs – but we are looking for other information. Back in 2014, the municipal authorities could not crush everything that stays in their way yet – therefore, the official resources were publishing on the regular basis announcements about withdrawals of lands for construction of Ulitsa 1905 Goda TTH, while the web-site of the Complex for Urban Development Policy and Construction of the City of Moscow published information related to the construction of Volzhskaya TTH. At that time, the withdrawal of lands was refundable. But a year later new trends have emerged.

After the approval of the amendments to the Civic Code allowing municipal authorities to demolish unauthorized structures without a court decision, the Moscow Government started clearing space for future transit hubs. It is not a coincidence that the bulldozers have smashed pavilions near Ulitsa 1905 Goda subway station. Most of those were destroyed on February 9, 2016, so the current list includes just a few structures that have survived that Night of the long buckets.

The tender documentation for TTH design requires special attention. The Work Requirements section in the Terms of Reference includes the following condition: “Make provisions for incorporation of commercial spaces into the TTH area, including analysis and forecast of demand on these areas, and marketing research of customer needs in the commercial zone of the TTH”. The Moscow residents ironically call TTH trade and transit hubs. To see that these hubs have nothing to do with parks or square gardens, one can just visit an operating TTH, for example, Planernaya.

Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the Anit-corruption Foundation, provided several screenshots of the project developed upon completion of the tender. No comments are needed for a facility with the name “Community and trade center with recreation area and underground space”. The functional zoning scheme clearly shows that this facility will occupy the majority of the TTH area.

 Схема технологиеского зонирования

Technological zoning scheme for Ulitsa 1905 Goda TTH

общий вид  

Exterior design of Ulitsa 1905 Goda TTH

The technical and economic parameters of the project leave no doubts: commercial space will occupy more than three fourths of the total Ulitsa 1905 Goda TTH area.

Основные технико-экономические показатели

Therefore, the Moscow residents will get same commercial pavilions – but with a new design and, definitely, new owners. In the light of the above, the Night of the long buckets seems a blatant redistribution of assets. Yes, the goods in the new trade center will be of better quality, cafes – more cozy and with better food, and overall the shopping will be more comfortable. But is this what the 63% of Moscow residents, who – according to the Russian Public Opinion Research Center – have strongly supported Sobyanin, expect? And what all of us should expect if any certificates, permits, and court decisions are just pieces of paper under bulldozer tracks?

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