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Small Businesses Cower After Moscow's Night of Bulldozers

A worker watches as an excavator is used to demolish illegal street kiosks and stalls near Chistiye Prudy metro station in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 9, 2016.

The first Stanislav Minaev knew his florist's shop was about to be demolished was a call at lunchtime from the local district council recommending he vacate the premises. That evening the bulldozers arrived to flatten everything.

Located in a park near Moscow's Kropotkinskaya metro station, the florist was part of a huddle of small shops and cafes that formed one of around 100 makeshift shopping centers declared illegal by the city and razed on the night of Feb. 8-9.

Russian commentators were quick to dub the lightning crackdown "The Night of the Long Shovels" - a pun on Hitler's "Night of the Long Knives" purge of the Nazi party in 1934.

"My wife and I earned 40,000 rubles [$516] a month with this business. And now we're unemployed and don't know what to do," said Minaev. "My wife is 43 now and where will she go now? What will she do? Nobody knows and nobody is interested. Nobody gives a damn. That's how business is now in the country."

The city says it is just trying to smarten up the streets and enforce planning rules.

But advocates of small business say the demolitions are the latest example of state hostility to private enterprise, a Soviet-era mentality they say has resurfaced under President Vladimir Putin and is worsening at a time of economic crisis.

"When an entrepreneur now wants to open a business, he may well think twice and ask himself: 'What if they knock it down without warning?'" said Alexander Kolosov, whose fast food restaurant "Mr. Pit" was demolished at Kropotkinskaya.

Putin's 16 years in power have coincided with growing state control over big business, illustrated by the renationalization of major oil companies, the growing dominance of large state banks and a strengthened grip over the media.

He has maintained silence on the Moscow bulldozings, but his Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov, a long-standing ally, spoke with undisguised contempt of the razed shops.

"These reptile houses don't have anything in common with so-called small business, because as a rule they are a breeding ground for crime and unsanitary conditions," he said.

Vow to continue

City authorities deny they are targeting small businesses and have vowed to continue with the demolitions. The owners of the shops "can't cover themselves with papers about property, acquired through clearly fraudulent means", wrote Moscow's mayor Sergei Sobyanin on VKontakte, a social network.

Even some critics of the demolitions accept there were often legal violations and backhanders when the buildings were erected, often many years ago in the 1990s or early 2000s.

Defenders say the city ignored repeated court orders calling a halt to the demolition plans at Kropotkinskaya and elsewhere.

"One can only comment on it with one word: lawlessness," said Anna Azidi, owner of the Kropotkinskaya shops. "It's already useless in this country, if they want to spit on the court."

City authorities say they no longer need court orders following recent law changes, pushed through at the city's urging, allowing local authorities to demolish buildings near transport hubs and in other public areas.

Officials say their targets aren't the shopkeepers but the landlords who rent illegal space to them. But it is the shopkeepers who get hurt, said Vladlen Maximov, president of the Coalition of Kiosk Owners.

"Bear in mind that the people who suffered were not the owners of these centers but the tenants, who had no problems with the authorities of Moscow. They hadn't violated anything."

Recurring crackdowns

Blogger and historian Mikhail Solomatin said the demolitions were proof that Soviet-era contempt for private ownership survives, drawing parallels with Stalin's suppression of private traders reluctantly tolerated during Lenin's short-lived "New Economic Policy" of the 1920s.

"The knocking down of trading pavilions in Moscow tells you all you need to know about the institute of private property in Russia," he said.

In 1921, four years after the Bolshevik revolution aimed to stamp out private property, returned emigre Yuri Klyuchnikov complained that "all over Moscow small kiosks selling bread and sausage have been built, which are run by Jews."

History repeated itself after the Soviet Union's collapse, when proliferating street kiosks, selling everything from vodka and cigarettes to lingerie, again symbolized the unruly but vibrant spirit of repressed entrepreneurship.

President Boris Yeltsin legalized private retail trade in early 1992. But it was not long before these untidy symbols of capitalism again faced a backlash. Moscow's then-mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, announced repeated campaigns to clear them from the streets in the interests of "order."

Luzhkov, a wily wheeler-dealer who presided over Moscow's transformation into a metropolis of skyscrapers and shopping centers, was hardly a communist. But his model of development was one where business was controlled by and linked with the state.

This approach has intensified under his successor Sobyanin, a Putin ally who has been mayor since 2010.

Ambitious beautification schemes to widen pavements, build pedestrian zones and construct cycle paths embody Sobyanin's pledge to turn Moscow into a "more European" capital.

Explaining his policy in November, Sobyanin said the city had approved "more modern" uniform designs for kiosks and trading pavilions, which would be built by the city and rented out through auctions.

But owners of the demolished shops are cynical.

"I think it's a division of property. People want the land," said Azidi. "And ordinary people - they don't have any rights. The goal of our state is to turn people into slaves."

($1 = 77.5115 rubles)