Sunday

24th Mar 2019

Feature

Moscow plans 'crazy' makeover despite EU sanctions

Rising some 540 metres high, Ostankino TV tower is a Moscow landmark, built in Soviet times to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1917 October Revolution.

From Brezhnev's time to Vladimir Putin's rule, Ostankino is ground zero for the Kremlin's propaganda machine - a tight security zone where visitors, after handing over their passports, walk through two full-body metal scans before entering, and where millions of viewers and listeners absorb the daily gauntlet of state-run media.

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  • People living in khrushchev-era flats are likely to end up in larger buildings similar to the above. (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

"The main objective of the tower is to distribute TV and radio nation-wide," a tour guide told a group of reporters last week.

The whole of Moscow can be seen from its viewing platform at a height that surpasses the tip of the Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Below, among the vast urban sprawl that stretches into the horizon, is a large white model rocket that carried the first person, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Nearby are 16 golden statues, each representing a former Soviet Republic, that surround a large fountain.

Further away, one can just make out the 1980 summer Olympics stadium, the gold cupolas of Ivan the Great Bell Tower, and the Kremlin. All of it is part of the glory that retains a magnetic allure to a past when Russia was a super power.

Soviet emblems and Smurf village

But Moscow is also undergoing a massive urban renewal project amid a public relations campaign to attract desperately needed foreign direct investment. After the invasion of Ukraine in 2014, these kinds of investments dropped by around 70 percent.

Along the Moscow riverbank and within a short distance from the Soviet hammer and sickle-emblazoned Kremlin parapets, there will soon emerge an indoor amusement park complete with a Smurf Village and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle attractions.

In one year from now, on 15 July 2018, the final of the 2018 Fifa World Cup will crown an event that Putin hopes will raise his country's profile to millions of visitors and TV viewers across the world.

Moscow's two stadiums are nearing completion, with widespread reports of migrant labour abuse.

Further away still, are the nearly empty office spaces of Moscow City - the tall modern-looking glass skyscrapers that make up the capital's financial and business district.

Scattered throughout are some 4,500 five-story Khrushchev-era apartment blocs, which are set to be torn down over the next decade and replaced by more modern and bigger apartments.

The Khrushchev rebuild plans are a problem. Over a million working class people will be displaced and likely moved away from the city centre in what appears to be wide-scale top-down gentrification.

Earlier this year, after the proposals were announced, thousands took to the streets in protest. The sudden march surprised many, including opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who at the time tried unsuccessfully to harness the anger.

Julius Freytag-Loringhoven, a Russia expert at the Moscow-based liberal Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung, says the scheme makes little sense given the economic crisis, political instability, and upcoming presidential elections next March.

"I find it crazy," he said.

Putin had rubber stamped a law at the federal level, the state Duma, to provide some sort of legal framework behind the city plans.

"In this country, you don't renovate 10 percent of Moscow, even as the mayor, without asking the president," noted Freytag-Loringhoven.

EU sanctions and mega-cities

The point was made when Moscow's mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, read a statement from Putin in front of a packed audience and scantily clad female hostesses at the Moscow Urban Forum earlier this month.

But Putin's urban renewal vision goes far beyond Moscow. Over the next five years, central streets, squares, waterfronts and parks in 40 Russian cities will be redeveloped.

Russia's deputy prime minister, Dmitry Kozak, who was also at the forum, spoke at length about nation-wide reforms in the hope of kick-starting an economy that is almost entirely anchored in petrol and gas.

"We would like to spread these mega cities across Russia," he said, noting that around 5 trillion rubles (€70 billion) had been earmarked for the effort.

Along with others within Putin's immediate entourage, Kozak is on an EU sanctions list for overseeing the integration of annexed Crimea into the Russian Federation.

His biggest critics accuse him - and others within Putin's entourage - of using state coffers to finance building projects that will make them even wealthier.

Among them is Alexander Solovye, the 29-year-old chair of Open Russia, a self-described advocacy group, which has ties to former energy magnate and oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Solovye, who recently moved headquarters after numerous police raids, prefers to lead visitors to the new office space through a door in the back of a shop in downtown Moscow. "It's easier this way," he told EUobserver.

Still in the process of unpacking, Solovye clears off a small desk. Police would frequently raid their former office, take everything, and then leave. "We have actually been robbed three or four times, and Navalny's office as well," he says of the raids.

Solovye says those on the EU and US sanctions lists are likely to reap the biggest rewards from the building frenzy.

"It is not a renovation. It is being invented as something which may let someone make a lot of money. Since 2014, since the sanctions, a lot of Putin's friends, the inner circle, and people from the Kremlin, a lot of siloviki [politicians from the security or military services], actually did not have access to cheap Western money," he said.

But when pressed about the EU sanctions, Sergei Cheryomin, Moscow's government minister, told EUobserver that they have had little effect and had mostly gone unnoticed.

"You can go to a Moscow grocery store or go down the street, you will not actually notice that the sanctions have passed," he said.

Instead, he noted that the country is expecting more than a 1 percent growth in GDP for this year.

Bring in the lobbyists

Exiting a two-year-long recession, Russia is now banking on infrastructure investment and creating a more business friendly climate as a part of a new economic growth model.

But the country is finding it difficult to shake off its image of cronyism and nepotism. In 2015, some 80,000 Russian businessmen had ended up in court with most losing their firms regardless of the verdict.

Western companies that pose no threat to the biggest state industries fare much better given the liberal-minded technocrats behind some of the government institutions. European businessmen in Moscow often speak about the investment climate in glowing terms.

Among them is Spanish national Antoine Linares, a director at bathroom furnishing company Roca.

"It is much easier to blame Russia than admit to your own mistakes and I have seen that in many places," he said.

His views were echoed by British-Canadian national Luc Jones, a commercial director at the Antal Russia recruitment agency, based in Moscow.

"I simply say to anybody worrying about investing in Russia - don't read the Western media," he said.

It is a message that resonates well in the state-media empire at Ostankino TV tower.

Built amid claims that it will stand tall for 300 years, the tower, a free-standing structure, is buried less than 5 metres into the Earth.

"Any changes from the sun and wind may crack the reinforced steel," said the tower's guide, noting extra features have been added to prevent any damage.

But in May, strong winds pivoted the top to one side by a record 13 metres. The viewing platform, where visitors can gawk at the Kremlin's vast glory, had also unexpectedly shifted ever so slightly for the first time ever.

EU extends sanctions on Russia

German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Russia hadn't done enough to implement the so-called Minsk peace process, a condition for lifting the sanctions.

Chemnitz neo-Nazis pose questions for Germany

UN human rights commissioner urged EU leaders to condemn violence that recalled the 1930s, but the local situation in former East Germany does not apply to the whole country.

Former Malta opposition leader fears for his life

Simon Busuttil spent 10 years as an MEP before returning to Malta to lead the opposition. He now fears for his life amid probes into high-level corruption in Malta's government.

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