The newly elected mayor of the Volga city of Samara, Georgy Limansky, wants to be seen as a politician who keeps his campaign promises. Limansky was elected in July to replace former mayor Oleg Sysuev, who moved to Moscow in the spring to take the post of deputy prime minister in charge of social issues. Limansky’s first action as mayor has been to reduce rents and household utility charges for city residents. (Novaya gazeta, September 15; Trud, September 16) The move is especially piquant since it was Sysuev’s decision to raise rents that first recommended him to the attention of the reform team in the Russian government. The rent hikes, which provoked widespread protest in Samara, were seen by government reformers as prefiguring the rent and utility reforms they intend to institute throughout the country as a whole.
Sysuev hiked rents and utility charges from an average of 40 percent of residents’ wages to 60 percent, bringing the rent on a two-room apartment in Samara to the equivalent of a four-room flat in Moscow (where housing is heavily subsidized by Mayor Yury Luzhkov’s government). Now Limansky has reversed Sysuev’s hikes, putting charges back down to an average of 40 percent of wages. Reporting the story, Novaya gazeta advised its readers to keep on eye on Limansky and predicted that his political career will extend further than Samara. Until his election in July, Limansky was a member of the city Duma and chaired the local branch of Aleksandr Lebed’s party. He ran for mayor with backing from all the opposition parties, ranging from the Communist Party to Yabloko, and defeated the government-backed candidate by a margin of some 20 percent. Limansky’s victory was seen as a major setback for the powers-that-be. His supporters declared that, while in most places a government-backed candidate could defeat a Communist candidate, the "party of power" could be defeated on the (rare) occasions that the opposition united behind a single candidate.
The Russian government continues, however, to insist that rent reform is essential. It argues that the present system of subsidized housing is unfair since subsidies are applied to rich and poor alike. First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, who is in overall charge of housing reform, told a meeting of the government yesterday that spending on community services exceeds even appropriations to the defense sector. (Itar-Tass, September 18) Nemtsov wants to target rent relief at the needy. In theory, what should happen is that instead of everyone, rich and poor, getting a large subsidy on housing and utilities, subsidy money should go only to low-income families. Rent hikes would, moreover, take place gradually and should cover full costs only in 2003. But opponents of Nemtsov’s scheme wonder whether Russia’s corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy is capable of targeting low-income households and getting appropriate sums to them. Given the lack of reliable information on the population’s true incomes, there is concern that a lot of people could claim housing subsidies for which they were not really eligible, and that poor households would be denied the benefits they need.-
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