MOSCOW — The acrid odor of drying tarmac and the judder of jackhammers that accompanies road construction is a nuisance for pedestrians and motorists in any city.
But for Moscow residents, the sight of road crews on nearly every downtown street corner has additional undertones — it is widely viewed as a harbinger of corruption.
Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has earmarked 4 billion rubles ($145.4 million) for resurfacing vast swathes of central Moscow’s sidewalks with expensive and fancy brickwork. The move has raised eyebrows because his wife has been linked to a brick and curbing business.
Andrei Dukhonin, a real estate agent, is one Muscovite who is suspicious. “I think more than likely it’s corruption,” he said. “It is a way of getting money from the budget.”
There has thus far been no evidence of graft. But in a city where former Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, amassed a multibillion-dollar construction empire that got rich off of municipal contracts, the frenzied construction taking place in the Russian capital this summer means one thing for Muscovites — here we go again.
‘Ira The Curber’
Not long after Sobyanin announced in February that the city would replace 4 million square meters of downtown sidewalks, local media noted that his wife, Irina Sobyanina, allegedly owned a brick and curbing business called Aerodromdorstroi.
It had been hoped that Sergei Sobyanin would be a breath of fresh air to Moscow politics.
According to the respected newsweekly “Dengi,” while Sobyanin served as mayor of the Siberian city of Tyumen from 2001 to 2005, the company received a series of lucrative municipal contracts. In Tyumen, the rumor mill had gone so far that she allegedly won the nickname “Ira Bordyur” — which translates roughly as “Ira the Curber.”
When Sobyanin was appointed to replace Luzhkov in October, the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International warned him about the “conflicts of interest” implied by these allegations.
Yelena Panfilova, head of Transparency International’s Russia office, said there was no evidence of wrongdoing in Sobyanin’s project to refurbish the city’s sidewalks. She added, however, that she had suggested that Sobyanin establish a body to provide impartial oversight, allowing him and his wife to elude potential suspicions.
“People can have wives and husbands who are in different business positions and there is nothing wrong with that, but in order to avoid [problems] there should be proper procedures for declaring conflicts of interests and doing business transparently,” Panfilova said.
Panfilova said she was puzzled that the mayor did not follow her advice, especially given the allegations surrounding Luzhkov and his spouse. “Sometimes people in public office believe that all this talk about conflict of interest and nepotism is just a nuisance,” she said. “Sometimes they do get better but I think there is some kind of lack of the culture of transparency.”
In Public’s Interest?
Sobyanin has said Moscow’s harsh weather conditions are bad for the asphalt previously used to pave sidewalks.
Real estate agent Dukhonin said he questioned the project’s aims because the asphalt being replaced had only been recently resurfaced itself. He said the previous pavement was “new, fresh asphalt.”
“Then when I passed by again, I saw that they were laying down bricks, which came as a really big surprise,” he added. “I was immediately struck by an element of corruption.”
It’s creating a major inconvenience for pedestrians, who are being forced to constantly dodge dusty construction sites by walking perilously in the city’s chaotic and clogged streets. And the headaches will continue until the construction is due to be completed in November.
Some opponents also point out that cheap labor is being used to fit the brickwork and that Moscow has more serious problems the authorities should be tending to.
New Mayor, Just Like The Old One…
Last week, a small group of about half a dozen people gathered to protest outside City Hall holding banners that read: “Sergei Sobyanin, stop wasting money from the budget!”
Yury Zotev, a Moscow pensioner, attended the meeting and told RFE/RL’s Russian Service: “I believe that we have to tell the authorities that before embarking on these large actions, some kinds of research and testing must be carried out first. And then, according to the results of this research, they could work out what modifications need to be made based on experience.”
The head of the Left Front opposition group, Sergei Udaltsov, also attended the demonstration. “We know that this brings in good profits for the business that is in charge of these bricks,” Udaltsov said. “But it is absolutely not fine for Muscovites.”
Sobyanin, a 53-year-old, gray-haired apparatchik, has been eager to set himself apart from his predecessor. He began his term as mayor by permitting moderate opposition groups to legally conduct an antigovernment rally — a move unthinkable under Luzhkov.
But a Levada Center poll in May found that only 27 percent of Muscovites believe Sobyanin is working “in the interest of the city and its citizens.” Thirty-nine percent think he serves the federal authorities and 19 percent that he serves his own interests.
Dukhonin for one was less than enthused with Sobyanin. “Put simply, before there was Luzhkov’s team,” the real estate agent said. “They got rid of him and now there is Sobyanin’s team, which is doing exactly the same as Luzhkov’s team did.”
RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report