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Getting a new apartment in the Russian North – a case study in extortion

The procurator appears to be willing only to impose disciplinary penalties on the guilty officials – that is, reprimands or fines. He does not want to initiate criminal proceedings. “Both the executive and the judiciary in Russia are very corrupt,” comments Elena. “Each covers for the other. Russia is still very far from the rule of law.”  

In 2007, the old apartment block at 12 Workers’ Street in the village of Vylgort in the Syktyvdinsky District of the Komi Republic in the northwest of Russia was condemned as unfit for human habitation. 

And about time. Elena Odnovarchenko, who rented an apartment in the block, described the conditions under which she lived with her husband and two daughters. The walls were warped with damp, covered with fungus, and separated from the floor by about a meter. The only heating came from the stove, which was unable to keep the apartment warm in the winter. A stench rose from the shit that had accumulated in the basement. The building was leaning over so far that its collapse was a real danger. 

Fearing for their lives as well as their health, Elena’s family moved to temporary accommodation in another part of the country, leaving most of their belongings behind. This was the first in a series of temporary places of residence. They are currently in Moscow. 

Finally, in summer 2010, the district administration started to build a new block of apartments for the residents at 17 Michurin Street. The project was fully funded by a non-commercial federal government program for rehousing people living in dilapidated premises. Nevertheless, on various pretexts the district administration started demanding “surcharges” as a condition of rehousing. Otherwise tenants would receive an apartment smaller than they were entitled to – or no apartment at all.  

At first the sums involved were relatively small – about $300. Then they went up to $500, $800, and so on. As the new building neared completion in early 2011, the “surcharges” went through the roof. Local government officials demanded anything from $3,000 to $30,000, depending on how much they thought could be squeezed out of each family. Tenants were made to sign agreements in which the payment was presented as a share of construction costs – costs that had already been covered in full by the government! 

A photo of the rubble from the demolition of the old block of apartments

The other tenants duly paid up, but Elena refused on the grounds that the demands were illegal. She also started writing letters about the situation to President Medvedev (see Footnote 1) and other national and regional officials (more than fifty letters so far). These letters were either ignored or forwarded to the same local officials she was complaining about, thereby exposing her and her family to reprisals. 

First, the district administration made false accusations against Elena, portraying her as a bad tenant. Then in early May 2011 they wrote to tell her that the new building was still not ready. Later she discovered that this had been a lie: people had already started to move into the new apartments in March and April. 

At the end of May, Elena was informed of a ruling by the district court, made in her absence, evicting her family “to nowhere” (that is, without rehousing) on the grounds that they had “departed to another place of residence.” In August she won the case on appeal. The court ordered the district administration to provide her with an apartment, but denied her request to receive monetary compensation instead. Elena does not wish to return to the Komi Republic because she is afraid of further and possibly more serious reprisals from the local authorities. 

Only in August did Elena learn – from the new court ruling – that the old apartment block had already been demolished. She had no advance warning to remove the belongings left behind in the old apartment, which included her life’s work as an artist and sculptor. She regards this as “an unprecedented violation of my rights as a citizen.” 
 
 
Elena is now trying to persuade the procuracy, the Russian agency responsible for criminal prosecutions, to bring the officials of the district administration to book for their crimes (See Footnote 2). After she provided important evidence, the district prosecutor acknowledged in a letter dated November 22, 2011 that the “agreements on the shared financing of expenditures connected with the provision of housing” concluded by the district administration with five tenants had been illegal (See Footnote 3). 

Elena Odnovarchenko, however, is far from satisfied. 

First, the only illegality he mentioned was the violation of a federal law concerning the funding of rehousing projects. What, she asks, about the Articles of the Criminal Code that pertain to bribery, fraud, extortion, and state officials exceeding or abusing their powers? 

Second, the procurator appears to be willing only to impose disciplinary penalties on the guilty officials – that is, reprimands or fines. He does not want to initiate criminal proceedings. “Both the executive and the judiciary in Russia are very corrupt,” comments Elena. “Each covers for the other. Russia is still very far from the rule of law.” 

February 2012 

Notes 

1. An English translation of one of her letters to the president is at http://www.globalpolitician.com/print.asp?id=7288 

2. Elena has detailed information on her campaign on her Russian-language blog at http://syktyvdinvshoke.livejournal.com. Direct access to this blog seems to be blocked, but it can be accessed through this link. 

3. http://syktyvdinvshoke.livejournal.com/9018.html 

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