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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Making the Poor Pay

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The consensus is that German Gref, economic development and trade minister, is the main force behind reform in President Vladimir Putin's administration. He and his colleagues will soon delight the nation with a package of reforms that will touch nearly everyone: municipal housing, social security and pensions. Health care reform is not far behind.

The basic idea is simple. The population must assume the cost of these social programs. One will have to apply for subsidies, and the poor will have to demonstrate their poverty. The assumption is that the prosperous will never collect their documents and stand in line for subsidies, so the additional revenues the state collects can be used to help the truly needy. This approach seems reasonable. But anyone who has experienced real life in Russia has a lot of questions. According to data from Gref's ministry, in the first quarter of 2001 there were 54.4 million Russians (one in three!) earning less than $100 a month. Opinion polls show that about 70 percent of the population feel they have suffered as a result of post-Soviet reforms, and they were not prosperous to begin with. Given these facts, lines for housing and other subsidies will start forming immediately all over the country

Of course people with money won't be there. They will pay whatever is necessary to get whatever they want without any bother. I hate to think what will become of the rest of us. My neighbor, a widowed pensioner, already stands in line for three hours to get a document for her rent subsidy. I remember reading that the former first secretary of the Moscow committee of the Communist Party, Viktor Grishin, died of a heart attack while standing in line for his pension.

How can people holding several temporary jobs to make ends meet demonstrate their poverty? What about people like me, surviving on unpredictable honoraria? Are we going to have to make the rounds for documents every single month? Imagine an artist who sells a painting for $1,000. Who knows when he might sell another. Is he rich or poor? If the whole population is wasting time getting documents, how will we have time to make a living and, God willing, pull ourselves into the middle class? Only thieves and bureaucrats will make money under such a bureaucratized system.

I currently pay about $10 a month for communal services, gas and electricity, plus an ever-increasing amount for the telephone. Estimates are that after reform I will pay about three times more. Compare that figure with the figures about average monthly incomes cited above, and you can see what such reforms mean for Russia at present.

What's more, our bureaucrats involve themselves in anything involving money or a chance to demonstrate power. I recently applied for my taxpayer identification number. I filled out the form and phoned my local tax office to ask if I could mail it. "You can," a young man told me helpfully, "but no one will look at it."

What we will be paying for? Take communal services. When my building underwent general repairs a few years ago, workers replaced the faucet in my kitchen and destroyed a good square meter of my tiles. They then told me I would have to use the neighbor's toilet for a few days, but if I paid extra they could fix it the next day.

My 78-year-old neighbor had to lug buckets of water from a neighbor's for more than a month while she waited for a plumber. It took half an hour to fix when he showed up. A month after I called an electrician to check the ceiling light in my living room, it stopped working. It took workers two months to replace our elevator, but it only worked for two days. When I called the dispatcher, she said, "It'll be quite a while before we get around to this one." Municipal workers spent two freezing months last winter replacing the windows in my mother's apartment. In the spring, one would not close — and the dispatcher could not even find a record of the job.

Pick up any paper in any city of Russia on any day and you will find similar stories. "If you don't want to deal with municipal authorities, form a condominium and your own administration," says one of our reformers. What are they saying? Most of us don't get to choose our neighbors. With whom should I form a condominium? With the alcoholic on the first floor or with the single mother next door who goes around the building every month asking for 10 rubles to pay her electricity bill? Or maybe with the hooligan upstairs who cursed at me when I tried to have a lock installed at the common entry?

The present system needs reform, but not this. Instead of taking people's last kopeks, the state should reform itself. Force our bureaucrats to act like public servants rather than cash-sucking ticks. We need to remove the bureaucratic element in the provision of goods and services. Only then will we know who should pay and what we are paying for. But that would mean ousting bureaucrats from their cushy posts. It won't happen soon and it won't be easy.

Tatyana Matsuk is a freelance journalist in Moscow. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.