- - Monday, February 15, 2016

MOSCOW — They are ubiquitous in Russia and many East European capitals: small islands of capitalism where residents can purchase an apple, a newspaper, some nylons or a new cellphone cover. And now they’re under assault here in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

In a move that has sparked an uproar, city authorities here have sent in bulldozers to tear down kiosks housing bakeries, florists, cellphone dealers and other shops in a frenzy of destruction that came just months after Mr. Putin ironically stressed the importance of small businesses and entrepreneurship for the country’s battered economy.

Russians awoke earlier this month to scenes resembling the aftermath of overnight bombing, after backhoes and bulldozers guarded by police officers demolished kiosks next to subway stations throughout Moscow on the order of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Critics say the kiosks are an eyesore and an anachronism in a fast-developing world capital.

In some cases police evicted protesters from premises before the bulldozers were sent in. In at least one reported incident, diggers began destroying a business premises with people — including a small child — still inside despite pleas from onlookers for demolition work to be delayed. There were, however, no reports of injuries.

Mr. Sobyanin, a member of Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party, said the businesses had been constructed “illegally” and were a danger to Moscow’s some 12 million residents.

“You can’t hide behind property papers you clearly acquired fraudulently,” he said. “Let’s return Moscow to Muscovites.”

So far the demolitions have only taken place in Moscow.

However, Russia’s Supreme Court has since ruled that only a handful of the over 100 business premises that were demolished in Moscow on Feb. 8-9 had been constructed illegally. Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the Russian opposition party Yabloko, appealed to Mr. Putin to prohibit any further demolition of kiosks and demanded Mr. Sobyanin’s dismissal. There are some 8,000 kiosks in Moscow, selling everything from flowers to fast food.

Online critics juxtaposed recent speeches by Mr. Putin and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on the need to support small businesses next to images of the shattered husks of once-thriving businesses.

“We all need your success — you need this, and the whole country needs this,” Mr. Putin told owners of small and medium businesses at a forum in Moscow on Jan. 20.

Media reports suggest that small businesses in Russia’s second-largest city, St. Petersburg, could be next in line for the kiosk carnage.

The wisdom of destroying livelihoods amid Russia’s current economic woes has also been questioned by opposition activists. Russia’s economy is entering a second year of recession against the backdrop of low global prices for oil and Western sanctions imposed over the Kremlin’s seizure of Crimea in March 2014.

An unrepentant City Hall, however, has pledged to continue razing the small shops that have become a familiar part of Moscow’s urban landscape since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Mr. Sobyanin’s spokeswoman, Gulnara Penkova, told Russian media that all the city’s actions were legal. In December authorities altered the civic code to allow the city government to tear down any structure it rules to be “self-built.” However, top lawyers, including Artur Aipetov, a member of the Moscow Chamber of Advocates, argue that such decisions must also be approved by a court.

Opposition figurehead Alexei Navalny said it would have been impossible to destroy the premises without “papers, permits and bribes,” and called for corrupt officials to be punished. Mr. Navalny’s anti-corruption organization also posted online copies of documents that suggested two of Mr. Sobyanin’s daughters own three multimillion-dollar apartments in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Mr. Navalny claimed that there was no legal way the mayor or his children could have afforded the properties.

“You can’t hide behind property papers you clearly acquired fraudulently,” the anti-corruption group tweeted in an ironic echo of Mr. Sobyanin’s justification for the destruction of the small businesses. “Let’s return Moscow to Muscovites?”

Moscow’s former mayor, Yury Luzhkov, also criticized the city’s actions.

“I don’t believe this is correct,” Mr. Luzhkov told the BBC’s Russian-language service. “There were hundreds of people who had tied up their lives with these businesses, and that should be respected.”

Mr. Luzhkov, who was sacked by the Kremlin in 2010, was often criticized for tearing down historical buildings to make way for modern constructions during his 18-year tenure as mayor of Moscow.

Not everyone disapproved of what Muscovites dubbed “The Night of the Long Shovels.” Journalist and socialite Ksenia Sobchak said in an online post that the kiosks were an eyesore, and that small business owners could “rent out the same 20-30 meters in a shopping mall.”

Others were even more positive.

“I think the city looks much nicer without all these greasy kebab stands and cellphone dealers around the metros,” said Muscovite housewife Olga Dudina.

Those owners of small businesses who survived the city’s first onslaught now face a nerve-wracking wait to see if they will be targeted next by Mr. Sobyanin’s bulldozers.

“We can only hope,” Dmitry Savin, the owner of a small bakery in north Moscow, told The Washington Times.

“I’ve simply got used to all these problems over the years,” he sighed. “It’s never been easy doing business in Russia.”

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