Vienna, July 18 – Many observers have pointed to the risk that the closure of the Cherkizov market at the end of June and others like it in the near future could trigger ethnic conflicts not only because so many non-Russians will be thrown out of work but because Russian officials have played the populist prejudices to justify their actions.
But there is an equal or even greater danger, one Moscow commentator suggests, that the closing of these markets will trigger a social explosion both because many Russians will also lose their jobs and because these markets helped an even larger number of them weather the economic difficulties of the last two decades.
In a commentary on the Kasparov.ru site yesterday, Aleksey Lapshin calls attention to this possibility by arguing that even now in Russia “a market is more than a market.” It is “a wave of life for hundreds of thousands if not millions of former citizens of the empire who fell from their accustomed social status” (www.kasparov.ru/material.php?id=4A6059CD153C2).
“Commercial markets in the form in which they existed in the 1990s were the result of the collapse of the state,” he argues. There were many bad things about them, but they made it possible for “a quite significant part of the population to survive in the most difficult conditions of the social-economic crisis.”
By the end of the 1990s and the beginning of this decade, however, “the relatively autonomous existence of commercial markets [like the Cherkizov] came into contradiction with the demands of the bureaucracy which was again gathering strength.” To survive, those involved in the market had to pay bribes.
“As a result, a unique vertical arose in which all the burden of these payments fell on the rank and file entrepreneurs,” Lapshin continues, and until recently, “the bureaucrats and the owners of the large markets lived in peace,” each making money off the people doing the buying and selling.
But now times have changed, and the officials are closing the markets. Given Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s denunciations of ethnic minorities, many assumed that the powers that be were doing so to deflect popular anger in the current economic crisis by expelling non-Russians whom many Russians blame for depressing wages or contributing to crime.
Lapshin, however, suggests that the real reason for the closure of the markets is to be found in the concerns of top officials about declines in the country’s light industry, declines some blame the markets for (www.vedomosti.ru/newspaper/article.shtml?2009/07/16/205360) and the desire of this elite to restore a government monopoly in this area.
“It is funny, of course, to hear that the traders are responsible for the problems of our light industry,” Lapshin notes, especially the suggestions that “’the damned shuttle traders’ are killing it.” But “such declarations [by senior Russian officials] are always picked up by the corresponding organs as a guide to action.”
And senior officials may have intended exactly that because the closing of the markets will help them “monopolize trade,” a desideratum as “the crisis deepens, and incomes fall. It is necessary to take some means or others to remove everything that interferes with the concentration of finances in the hands of selected groups.”
“The victims of this latest wave of monopolization will become the markets and consequently the representatives of small business. And thousands of workers will lose their jobs.” By playing on “xenophobic attitudes,” the authorities hope to deflect their anger, Lapshin says, but the fact is that “many citizens of Russia will lose their incomes.”
Some experts have estimated that the closure of the Cherkizov market alone will cost 100,000 jobs, but this campaign against the markets, because it represents “the latest effort of the powers that be to resolve their problems at the expense of the citizenry,” could have far more serious consequences than that for the country as a whole.
“In the 1990s,” he writes, “the powers that be were able to avoid a social explosion not the least because people had the chance to work in trade” in markets like Cherkizov, and they were able to acquire what they needed when they could not find it anywhere else. Now, however, they will have nowhere to turn but the streets.