MOSCOW — When he ran for president in 2012, Vladimir Putin wrote that Russia’s “middle class has to grow.” Kari Guggenberger is exactly the kind of person he had in mind. An IT manager, she fits 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.
Guggenberger accepted the bargain 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. Guggenberger would have been content for it remain that way, too — until the government came at her where she lives.
Guggenberger is one of 1.6 million Muscovites who could be affected by a city 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 that this massive urban relocation will bring much-needed improvements to city housing.
But to thousands of residents like 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’ve held street protests that have brought out thousands. They’ve used social media to organize 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 Friday as lawmakers gave preliminary approval to the project. Many opponents plan to join a nationwide protest Monday, called by anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny.
“I was always far from politics, but they’ve driven me into the opposition,” Guggenberger, 35, said in a recent interview. Saving her earnings from her IT job, she bought her apartment in a low-rise neighborhood just north of Moscow’s center in 2010. The apartment is the first place she has owned.
“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 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 Putin, whose approval rating hasn’t been below 80 percent in three years, from winning reelection next March, said Denis Volkov, an analyst with Russia’s independent pollster, the Levada Center. But it does point to a fundamental weakness of the system Putin has created.
Russians see “a lack of accountability,” 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, Volkov said, in dealing with authorities, Russians “assume they are going to be tricked.”
Putin himself is “in a Teflon situation” because he has made Russians feel as if their country is a great power again, Volkov said. For many Russians, he’s the only politician who can be trusted to right a wrong. The manifestation of that sentiment is 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 Putin, who approved the apartment project in February, will not intervene in the controversy between Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin and the angry homeowners.
The city, which is calling its program a “renovation,” has published plans detailing the advantages of the new buildings over ones slated to be torn down. In an interview with the official TASS news agency Tuesday, Sobyanin said 90 percent of residents support the plan.
Opponents think the number of supporters is lower; they don’t trust authorities to be honest about that. According to the draft law, the city will decide where the displaced owners will live and promises only to provide each owner a new apartment of equal size. There will be no extra compensation for money that owners have spent improving their homes.
Lawmakers on Friday amended the law to allow residents to choose cash payments instead of new homes, but the opponents do not trust officials to value their homes fairly. The State Duma, the lower house of parliament, has added guarantees that the new apartments will be in the same neighborhood, but opponents see the plan as a trick to move residents from central neighborhoods to distant peripheries. The legislators said the program, which will take 15 to 20 years to complete, will start with buildings in the worst condition.
Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin, a former senior aide to Putin, said before the vote that the amendments should “eliminate the friction.”
Opponents were not buying it.
“If they gave me money to buy the same apartment with the same repairs I’ve made, in the same neighborhood, I might go along with it,” Guggenberger said. “But they are just taking my hard-earned property. How long will I have to work to get back to owning a place I love where I want to live?”
Even people who support the relocation are concerned that the new housing will be of cheaper quality, said Yelena Shuvalova, one of the few members of the Moscow city legislature to oppose the relocation plan. Many of the five-story buildings slated for demolition are made of brick, which Muscovites see as better-quality construction than the massive concrete block structures being built to replace them.
“People need green zones, trees, and not everyone wants to move to an upper floor, and they ask, ‘Why are you moving me out of a brick house into a concrete block one?’ ” Shuvalova said.
Meanwhile, the city is allowing residents to vote on whether their buildings will be torn down, but the voting will end Thursday, just one day after the Duma is slated to give its final approval to the law.
“It’s like they’ve already decided and our voice doesn’t matter,” said Irina Spiridonova, one of about 5,000 Muscovites who protested the relocation May 28. “I was never into politics; I only got involved because it involves my home.”
Some marchers wore prison-type clothing, others carried signs that said “Renovation = Deportation” and “This is Moscow, not Mordor,” a reference to residents of low-rise buildings viewing the high-rise apartments as towering monstrosities.
“We know why the city wants our land,” said one protester, who gave only her first name, Tatyana. “It’s valuable for developers.”
Sobyanin, who is up for reelection in September 2018, told TASS he understood that some Muscovites think “we are deceiving the people and won’t live up to our promises,” and he insisted that the city will make good on its commitments. Some news reports have suggested that the mayor was genuinely surprised by the reaction to what he figured would be a welcome initiative.
Some observers see in Putin’s unwillingness to get involved the hand of Russia’s “construction lobby,” builders and suppliers who have fallen on lean times because of a recession. According to a recent Transparency International report, the relocation project is a gift to them.
Gennady Gudkov, a reserve colonel in the former KGB and now a pro-democracy politician, went further, opining in a recent interview that the project amounts to a plan to further enrich powerful business owners in Putin’s inner circle.
“This law was created so they could take property without any courts,” he said. “And then half of the money from the federal budget will be spent on kickbacks.”
Putin, he said, isn’t intervening “because this is the system he built.”
Natalya Abbakumova contributed to this report.