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Moscow Mayor's Kiosk Purge Draws Fire

  • Kevin O'Flynn

In the weeks after being appointed mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, toured the city's streets inspecting kiosks. Sobyanin says he was "appalled" and has since attempted to close the thousands of kiosks around the city.

In the weeks after being appointed mayor of Moscow, Sergei Sobyanin, toured the city's streets inspecting kiosks. Sobyanin says he was "appalled" and has since attempted to close the thousands of kiosks around the city.

For years, shoppers had flocked to a row of ramshackle kiosks under a bridge near Moscow's Belorusskaya railway station to purchase goods like alcohol, cigarettes, pirate DVDs, and hot pies.

Today, however, the path under the bridge is bare and desolate -- a legacy of one of the earliest initiatives of Moscow's new mayor, Sergei Sobyanin.

Soon after Sobyanin was named mayor in October, he took a walk around the city to meet the people and get a feel for the metropolis he would be responsible for governing. Sobyanin was appalled by what he saw at the city's downtown Krasnopresnenskaya metro station.

The new mayor denounced the placing of kiosks around the metro, saying they obscured the view of a statue outside the station. Moreover, using colorful language, he pointed out that some kiosks had unsafe wiring hanging together "like snot."

Soon thereafter, Sobyanin sacked the heads of two Moscow city districts, sending a clear signal that change was on the way.

Clean Sweep

Sobyanin's walk around, his words and actions were taken as a signal that kiosks, that ubiquitous symbol of 1990s-style Russian capitalism, were out of vogue. Within days hundreds of kiosks were removed from the capital's streets, parks, and metro stations. It was a move that sharply divided Muscovites.

Aleksandr Dutov, who is 47-years-old and works in a press kiosk near Novoslobodskaya metro station, called the move "a complete disgrace."

"First of all hundreds of people will be without work. Secondly, they are not thinking about Muscovites or migrants. It is removing thousands of people, millions of people from a convenient, close [shop]," Dutov said.

He allowed that some kiosks "spoil the view," but stressed that "press kiosks" shoud not be taken away from the metro.

The problem, critics say, is that the city not only moved against the often ramshackle metal boxes selling alcohol and cigarettes but against fruit and vegetable stands, fast food stands, and kiosks that sold newspapers.

One company to suffer was Star Dogs, a hot dog company which lost 30 kiosks in the city, according to a spokesman for the company. The spokesman estimated that each kiosk had brought in 30,000 rubles ($1,000) a day.

“You can't build civilized business with uncivilized methods,” said Sergei Borisov, the head of OPORA, the country's largest association of small and medium-sized businesses, in a statement on their web site.

Muscovites React

Some kiosk owners have launched legal challenges to Sobyanin's decision, leading the mayor to allow some socially important kiosks to return and for those still in place to remain until May 1, while the city's architecture department works out a way for small traders to work in the city. Nevertheless, city officials say, over 2,200 trading points have already been cleared from the Russian capital's streets.

Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, called the decision "impromptu" and said it shows a lack of expertise about how Moscow is run.

"At first they take away all the kiosks including those which were legal, with long term rental agreements, which fulfilled important functions for Moscovites," Petrov said. "On the other hand when it became clear that it is stupid they start to return some of them and rebuild them in a new form.”

Removing the kiosks was not Sobyanin's only controversial move. In an effort to ease traffic on Moscow's main street, Ulitsa Tverskaya, he cleared away parking spaces. But that move upset owners of the large boutiques and shops on the fashionable downtown thoroughfare, who felt the move cost them customers.

Sobyanin has also suggested relocating elderly pensioners to another city to ease congestion in Moscow.

Petrov says that with such moves, Sobyanin -- who is originally from the Siberian city of Tyumen -- risks alienating longtime Moscow residents.

"On one hand there is more chance of mistakes," Petrov explained. "And on the other hand there is the chance that they will be seen as outsiders who have come in and started to change things without knowing how things are done.”

Some Muscovites, however, were glad to see the kiosks go.

Yevgeniya, a pensioner standing near where the kiosks had once been at Belorusskaya station, said that she could now sell her flowers from her garden in peace. Previously she had been intimidated by the kiosk owners and their customers, who she claimed were "protected by the police."

Questionable Survival

Many kiosks are believed to have survived because of illegal regular payments not only to local bureaucrats but to police as well. Yevgeniya says she could not afford to bribe the police.

“If we could we'd have agreed to pay something, maybe fifty rubles or so, but that was not enough for them. They sold places for much higher prices," Yevgeniya explained. "Those who sell industrial goods, they pay 500 rubles a day, 1,000 rubles a day. What can we do and if there is a lot of us here we can't sell everything. For us fifty rubles is a lot of money.”

Galina, a 57-year-old migrant from Moldova who was collecting money for access to the toilet stalls, said she feels sorry for the kiosk owners and workers who have lost their livelihood and now "walk around carrying bags under their arms and trade where they end up."

According to Madzhumder Muhammad Amin, president of the Federation of Migrants of Russia, the kiosk closures have hit migrant families particularly hard, leaving about 7,000 migrants out of work.

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