The rehousing scam in Omsk

Six years ago the Omsk regional authorities embarked on a programme aimed at rehousing people living in unsafe and dilapidated accommodation. But the results are far from satisfactory. на русском языке

The programme is part of a national housing strategy adopted as long ago as 2001. Its progress can be judged by the fact that President Putin, in a speech to the State Council at the end of last year, had to remind the assembled ministers and governors about their duty to implement this high priority project. He warned that they would be held personally responsible for any further failure to do so.

There is no doubt that the strategy was designed to benefit people, but the question remains: which people? In the district of Russkaya Polyana [a small town some 150km from Omsk], for example, the law enforcement and regulatory authorities have been looking for them for a year and a half. The only person who has benefited so far appears to be the leader of the Solnechnoe village council Nadezhda Khudina. She included in the rehousing list her own daughter, who is now registered as the occupant of an abandoned house where she has never lived.

There is no doubt that the strategy was designed to benefit people, but the question remains: which people?

The actual owner of the house is Omsk businesswoman Irina Zaitseva, who in the 1990s spent five years working as head of the village medical and obstetric centre. The house came with the job, and when she returned to the city and set up her own business (a cafe and bakery), she forgot all about it. But, discovering Khudina’s designs on her old home (of which she is still the legal owner), she filed a suit with the local public prosecutor’s office.

Irina Zaitseva has filed a suit against the leader of the Solnechnoe village council Nadezhda Khudina. Photo: Georgy BorodyanskyThe resulting investigation and court case has brought to light many interesting facts about how the rehousing programme is being implemented, some of them cited in court by Nikolai Kudrilyak, a regional inspector from Rosfinnadzor, Russia’s Federal Financial and Budgetary Supervisory Service. He told the court that ‘A list of unsafe buildings was drawn up in 2009-10 and twenty four of them were sold by their occupants for a tiny 1000-3000 roubles [£20-60], although the rehousing programme had already been publicised. Nineteen further houses were sold when funding for the programme was subsequently put in place’. In other words, said Kudrilyak, local authorities weren’t telling people about the project, so they had no idea that they could exchange their mouldy hovels in the middle of nowhere for new flats with all mod cons in the district centre.

A flourishing village...once

One of these godforsaken places is Tam-Chilik, where houses, even the habitable ones, aren’t worth a penny. When Irina Zaitseva returned there for the first time to sort out the question of her old house she was shocked, and has since combined her business role with community activism.

The village of Tam-Chilik is one and a half kilometres long; it started as a single street, so this was named Main Street. In the 1930s 70 families lived here, and at the beginning of this century there was approximately the same number. The rate of change was slower here than in Russia as a whole: it wasn’t the 90s that were ‘turbulent’, but the Noughties, as it was in many Siberian villages. Here life was pretty normal, or at least, still extant, before ‘Russia got back on its feet’.

In 1992 the village got a central heating plant, so everyone had a warm home, and a two storey nine-form school with an extension for pre-school classes. There was work for everyone on the farms. ‘It was a prosperous agricultural centre’, say the old-timers, ‘there were 12 herds of sheep, each of 700 head, and all fine-wooled. There were also 400 head of cattle, a herd of 200 horses, a machinery park with 20 combine harvesters and as many tractors, a grain store, a carpentry shop, a mill, a blacksmith’s and a creamery.’

The rate of change was slower here than in Russia as a whole: it wasn’t the 90s that were ‘turbulent’, but the Noughties.

Main Street also served numerous local needs: a general store selling groceries and household goods, a canteen, a hostel and a bath-house, not to mention the medical centre run by Irina Zaitseva. ‘What else was there…?’, says former machine operator Kali Kasimgazinovich, trying to remember. ‘Oh yes, of course, there was the village club. They’d show all kinds of films at the weekends – Soviet, new, foreign. And on national holidays there’d be public celebrations and concerts – the whole village would be there.’

...but not any more

But in our new century the investor-liquidators, cronies of the local administrative and judicial bigwigs, arrived, and Tam-Chilik suffered the same fate as most Siberian villages. One of the best known examples of what went on was the bankruptcy of the Zhelanny agricultural cooperative in Omsk’s Odessa district. Here the raiders expropriated land, machinery and cattle (worth 120m roubles at the time) from the more than 600 co-op members, transferred the lot into their own names and raised about 70m roubles of bank credit, which they would self-evidently never pay back, on it all. Cases like this sometimes ended up with suspended prison sentences for the raiders - and real sentences for the co-op managers who tried to stand up to them.

By the mid-2000s the sounds of neighing, lowing and bleating and the roar of tractors and harvesters had faded in Tam-Chilik, and the buildings on Main Street had emptied and thinned out. In 2006 the school closed down and the central heating station was also redundant – the houses that remained went back to using their old wood burning stoves. Everything else had also gone: the medical centre, the hostel, the bathhouse, the shop – the locals now have to buy their bread, salt and matches in Adrianovka, eight kilometres away.

Tam-Chilik has suffered the same fate as many other Siberian villages. Photo:Georgy BorodyanskyAll that is left of the club now is a bit of wall and a rusty display panel with the word ‘Cinema’ on it. The school building has also been reduced to bare steel piles rising out of heaps of brick. According to the locals, it was reduced to this state by some people, supposedly from Omsk, who came a few times with a crane and trucks in which they took away the most useful part of the structure, concrete slabs.

All that is left of the club now is a bit of wall and a rusty display panel with the word ‘Cinema’ on it.

The last sign of life in the village was its drinking water pump, but three years ago it collapsed and was also removed, probably for scrap. That left one standpipe at one end of the street, but the water from it is undrinkable. I tried it: it stank of diesel, and no one can imagine how that got in the borehole.

Twice the locals took samples of this water for testing, and at the end of last year it was officially pronounced drinkable, but a month ago there was an official admission that it didn’t meet hygiene standards. Now water is brought to the village as and when requested by the few people who still live here. When the re-housing programme started six years ago there were about 30 households left; now there are only nine.

A deliberate plan?

Irina Zaitseva believes that the authorities deliberately and systematically reduced the village (and no doubt others as well) to this state, so that people would leave, handing over their houses for next to nothing. The lucky new owners meanwhile received the right, thanks to the rehousing programme, to newly-built flats in Russkaya Polyana, 70 square metres in area and officially valued at more than 2m roubles [£40,000] (this was the figure quoted in the court case against Nadezhda Khudina, who had registered her daughter as living in Irina Zaitseva’s house).

Everyone tried for fraud connected with the project – all holders of high office - has got away with either a suspended sentence or a fine.

There is of course no proof that this was all planned, but the fact that villagers were not notified of their right to rehousing was clear from the evidence given by the Rosfinnadzor inspector and cited by the public prosecutor, rejecting an objection made by Khudina’s defence lawyer.

The public prosecutor is evidently aware of the possible scale of the alleged fraud around the village houses, but it’s unclear whether it is being investigated. The locals, and not just them, would like to see a list of the people who bought 24 old properties for peanuts and were then rehoused in nice new flats, but it’s difficult to say if the investigators even have one. I spoke to most of Tam-Chilik’s residents, and they all agreed that it wasn’t just random members of the public who accessed the rehousing programme.

The court gave Nadezhda Khudina a two-year suspended sentence, and indeed every person in the area tried for a similar offence – all of them holders of high office - has got away with either a suspended sentence or a fine.

The insulted and injured

At the end of last month Irina Zaitseva had a meeting with Omsk regional public prosecutor Anastas Spiridonov in the regional presidential community liaison office and filed an official request for a more detailed investigation of how the rehousing programme was being implemented in the Russkaya Polyana district. She made the same request of the regional Rosfinnadzor head. ‘I’m really angry about the pensioners and disabled people being defrauded by these swindlers,’ she says. ‘They should have been the first to be given new homes, instead of which they’ve been left in their crumbling shacks in these dead villages, and nobody gives a damn about it.’

Rynzha Sultanalinova and her disabled daughter Indira are still waiting to be re-housed. Photo cc: Georgy BorodyanskyIt’s hard to see how the lists were compiled if Anna and Grigory Krivoshei (address: No 1 Main Street) were omitted from them. Anna was brought here by her parents as a child in 1941, Grigory by his, even earlier – he’s now 84. They both worked at the state farm for over 40 years, she as a milkmaid, swineherd and calf weaner; he as a tractor driver, awarded six times with medals for his outstanding work.

But neither awards nor length of service were enough to get them on the rehousing list. Some people came three years ago, they say, from the local authority ‘or somewhere’ (probably the valuation survey office): ‘They came and said, ’Fill in this form about your house’. The people measured the house and garden plot, promised the couple they would get a new flat in town and gave them a document, for which they had to pay 5000 roubles (£100), confirming their possession of the house they had lived in for over half a century. And that was the end of it. Two and a half years have gone by and not a word from any government office.

In Tam-Chilik there are still nineteen people without a decent roof over their heads.

Rynzha Sultanalinova lives at No 18 Main Street with her 18-year-old daughter Indira, who was left disabled by meningitis at the age of two and can neither walk nor talk. Rynzha is afraid to leave Indira at home alone for long, but sometimes it’s unavoidable if she has to go to Adrianovka to shop for food. One day Indira developed a high temperature and when Rynzha phoned for an ambulance to take her into hospital she was told to ‘bring her yourself’, although they know about her daughter’s condition. ‘I got her into the cart’, she told me, ‘and took her. They spent half an hour examining her and sent us home again.’

Two years ago the district authority turned them down for rehousing because Indira was too young: ‘Come back when she’s 18.’ Now she is 18, but Rynzha doesn’t believe they’ll ever get a flat.

Other residents of Main Street tell similar tales of broken promises, and in one case of suspected arson. In Tam-Chilik there are still 19 people without a decent roof over their heads.

Meanwhile deputy governor Yuri Gamburg announced on 2 April that the the Omsk region ‘was ready to offer housing (with rents subsidised by the regional authorities) and jobs to residents of Ukraine who wish to resettle here.’ He also announced they would be entitled to a resettlement grant, ‘as part of the regional rehousing programme’.

So far no Ukrainians seem to be taking him up on his offer. But where can the people from Tam-Chilik resettle?

 

About the author

Georgy Borodyansky is an Omsk-based correspondent for Novaya Gazeta