#9 - JRL 2009-228 - JRL Home
Moscow News
December 14, 2009
Corruption fans flames
By Anna Arutunyan

As the death toll from the Perm fire disaster reached 146, many of Russia's small business owners were scrambling to observe safety regulations amid a large-scale crackdown.

That is if they can find out what they are.

In a shop selling fire safety equipment in northern Moscow, entrepreneur Ilya Khandrikov could not get a copy of the latest regulations.

"What regulations are you talking about?" said the shop's saleswoman, Lyudmila. "There is a technical regulation code, but we don't have it at the moment."

The 01 shop near Sokolniki has been besieged with customers in the aftermath of the Perm tragedy as fire inspections in Moscow increased.

But for Khandrikov, getting the right brochure wasn't a trivial matter. It was the document cited by the fire inspector who closed down his business last month. It wasn't available was because fire safety officials were currently working on issuing a new brochure. In the meantime, the old one was still effective - it just wasn't easy to find.

This small, Kafkaesque inconsistency is just one of the hundreds that inevitably arise between fire inspectors and small business owners. As bureaucratic burdens accumulate, struggling entrepreneurs pay bribes, and inspectors look the other way, contributing to a nationwide death toll of about 15,000 people each year.

The number of dead from the Dec. 5 fire at Perm's Lame Horse nightclub rose to 146 on Sunday after a 27-year-old woman died in a Moscow hospital. Another 84 victims of the fire remained in hospital, many in a critical condition.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev have led calls for a tough crackdown on breaches of fire safety, and charges have been brought against the directors of the Lame Horse and the head of the company that supplied the fireworks that set the club ablaze.

Several local fire safety officials have been fired, and ministers of the Perm regional government submitted their resignations.

Putin has blamed corrupt officials for the tragedy.

"We're in a vicious circle," a furious prime minister told officials at a meeting in Perm on Wednesday. "If we give more rights to controlling organisations, then corruption grows. But as soon as we ease the burden on business, then carelessness grows."

Khandrikov, whose business sells professional clothing, said that one of the his firm's violations was a fire exit with inappropriate panelling.

But that panelling had existed for 32 years, and "fire inspectors hadn't found anything wrong with it. Maybe they just noticed it?"

Khandrikov said that, while he "wasn't asked for a bribe", he got the feeling one would definitely have helped. "When the punishment for such a small violation is so big, [small businesses cave in]. Closing a business for a month is a disaster. The entrepreneur will try to avoid it by any means possible."

Fire safety in Russia is the domain of the Emergency Situations Ministry. The influential ministry even has a military sub-division, and while criticism against its minister, Sergei Shoigu, has increased from some State Duma deputies, he enjoys high poll ratings with the public.

In wake of the Perm tragedy, the ministry introduced a bill that would increase fines for fire safety violations from 20,000 roubles to 200,000 roubles, and increase the prison term for violations that lead to a fire that kills two or more people.

"We don't relieve ourselves of responsibility," Yuri Deshevykh, the director of the Emergency Ministry's fire control department, said at a news conference last week. "An inspector walked past [Perm's Lame Horse nightclub] every day and probably knew about the parties it was holding."

But there were no statements about increasing responsibility for lax or corrupt fire inspectors. The ministry's press service did not immediately respond to faxed requests for comment.

The entire Perm regional government and the city's mayor resigned on Wednesday, a day after Putin flew into the city.

Pressure is increasing on the Emergency Situations Ministry, with Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika ordering local prosecutors to check the activities of the ministry's fire safety inspectorate.

In Moscow, Khandrikov believes that by increasing the fines, the fire inspectorate will only create more corruption as struggling small business owners opt to pay bribes.

Speaking out of the 01 store's head office, Sergei Afanasiyev, the shop's fire safety education director, agreed. "Have you ever seen a warehouse where rubber tires aren't being stored? But it's against fire safety regulations. And that's how it happens in real life," he said.

His company handles everything from fire safety education to the newly-introduced audit system for businesses, and controls the 01 store chain. The head of the firm is a former Emergency Situations Ministry official.

"All measures to conform to fire safety regulations are expensive. And because it's so expensive, businesses try to get around the law. I don't see how to make it cheaper."

Indeed, he believes the whole system needs to be changed.

He is not the only one. Last week, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the nationalist Liberal Democratic party, called for Shoigu and Perm Governor Oleg Chirkunov to be fired.

Other politicians agreed. "Until there is a democratic system where agencies answer to an opposition, corruption will continue," Oleg Shein, a leading member of the left-leaning Just Russia party said by telephone. "A system that is not regulated will continue to cause technical disasters."

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