Privatization Ban Could Lift in 2009

For MTThe 17th-century Pozharsky Chambers, privatized in 1996, are now in ruins.
Proposed legislation that would lift an eight-year moratorium on the privatization of historic buildings could be just what the city's architectural monuments need to keep them from falling into ruin. Activists, however, say the proposed law could lead to unscrupulous owners misusing buildings regardless of their historical value.

"We don't think the city is ready to start the privatization process," said Yevgeny Bunimovich, a Yabloko deputy in the Moscow City Duma who opposes the bill.

Buminovich said the proposed law doesn't explain owners' obligations clearly, and so far the city has only punished a single owner for making inappropriate alterations to a building.

He also said the central location of many of the buildings could attract buyers who were more interested in profiting from the property rather than maintaining its historical significance.

"Moscow is too much of a juicy proposition," he said.

The bill, which was passed in its first reading in early November, would lift a moratorium on the privatization of historic buildings in Moscow that has been in place since 2001. Buyers would be able to purchase the buildings through an auction, and their ownership would be conditional on compliance with conservation regulations.

If the City Duma passes the new legislation, the city's historic monuments could be eligible for privatization next year.

Privatization would add to the city budget and would be suitable for large office buildings and houses that could be lived in by families, said Mikhail Moskvin-Tarkhanov, the head of the city's building commission.

Preservationist Yulia Mezentseva said privatization could potentially be a step toward a more "European" attitude to the preservation of historic buildings.

"In Europe, the general belief is that private owners look after buildings better than the state does," she said, adding that she was skeptical about whether the same thing would happen in Russia.

Moskvin-Tarkhanov said privatization will be for "exceptional" cases, while most buildings will be leased.

After the law is passed, the Moscow Heritage Committee, the municipal organization responsible for deciding on the status of historical buildings owned by the city, will have to come up with a list of buildings eligible for privatization, Moskin-Tarkhanov said. He estimated that the first sales would be in 2010 or 2011, saying the city should not sell property during the crisis.

But Mezentseva, a member of Moskva, Kotoroi Nyet, or "The Moscow That Is No More," an organization dedicated to preserving the city's historic sites, said the first sales could come as soon as next spring.

Other preservationists gave a whole range of reasons why lifting the moratorium could do more harm then good, from inadequate records to faulty procedures and inaction by the Moscow Heritage Committee.

"Today, the procedure isn't in place for starting the process," Bunimovich said. "There still isn't a register of all the monuments. We can't even start talking until the potential buyers know exactly what they are obliged to do. Today, there are no such documents."

He also criticized the Moscow Heritage Committee for launching so far only one — albeit successful — court case against a negligent owner. "The committee needs to learn to act firmly and clearly, and then we won't have any objections against privatization," he said.

"The authorities should concentrate their efforts not on the possibility of selling buildings but on putting the conservation process into good working order," preservationist Konstantin Mikhailov agreed.

He said building owners rarely pay attention to requests from the Moscow Heritage Committee, sometimes slamming the door in inspectors' faces.

"People need to be afraid of these organizations," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Moscow Heritage Committee said she couldn't comment on the legislation or the committee's role.

Privatization of Moscow's historic buildings began in 1994, when President Boris Yeltsin permitted monuments of regional and local significance to be sold, but not those of so-called federal significance.

Moskvin-Tarkhanov said several hundred "second-echelon" buildings were sold before the moratorium went into effect in 2001.

Not all of the buildings that have been privatized have fallen into good hands.

The 17th-century Pozharsky Chambers on Bolshaya Lubyanka were sold to a bank for further sale in 1996, Mezentseva said. The buildings, which once belonged to national hero Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, are now an overgrown ruin.

"In more than 10 years, the state has not been able to get the buildings back," Mezentseva warned. "We need to work out the process of reclamation."

Another late-18th-century building on Taganskaya Ploshchad was bought by an investor and turned into a casino, Mikhailov said. It was recently claimed back in a court victory for the Moscow Heritage Committee, the first of its kind.

In some cases, owners may be able to destroy the buildings, leaving only the facade, said Edmund Harris of the Moscow Architecture Preservation Society, or MAPS.

Preservation laws require a list of features to be preserved in each listed building, but these sometimes simply describe the building's appearance from the street.

He also said the law should specify the mechanism by which owners can be forced to restore their property. In Britain, owners of neglected historic buildings can be served with a compulsory repair notice, while no such law exists in Russia.

Although privatization is aimed at attracting wealthy investors, experts differed on how popular it will be.

Investors will be wary of putting money into dilapidated buildings that they are required to restore without any incentives, said Mikhailov.

"There's no tax break here like people have in Europe."

Nevertheless, in Moscow there will be takers, especially within the Garden Ring, he said.

"For investors, it's a question of prestige."

However, MAPS campaigner Harris said many investors would be scared away by the strict requirements. There needs to be a "carrot as well as a stick," he said.

Moskvin-Tarkhanov called for a competition system in which the buildings would go to a buyer who could provide evidence of a business reputation and experience in looking after a monument rather than to the highest bidder.

This would suit at least one potential buyer of a historic building.

Tatyana Makeyeva said she would like to take advantage of privatization but was "very afraid" of the auction system.

Makeyeva is the director of the House of Mouravieff-Apostol, a building on Staraya Basmannya Ulitsa which once belonged to the family of a prominent Decembrist.

The family's emigre descendants rent the wooden building from the city and have spent several million dollars restoring it and turning it into a museum and arts center.

If the new law is passed, an investor could conceivably outbid the family for the building, which was "junk" when the restoration began, Makeyeva complained.

As a tenant, the family feels a constant threat that the building could be taken away, she said.

"Of course, we would like to buy the building but not on the conditions that the law offers at the moment."