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Moscow may have problems, but its government has both power and vision, says Francis Beckett ...
Moscow may have problems, but its government has both power and vision, says Francis Beckett

When london mayor Ken Livingstone visits the mayor of Moscow next February, he might feel a twinge of envy.

'The city government controls all public transport, including the Metro, and all communal institutions,' says Moscow's deputy mayor Yosef Ordzhonikidze.

Central government has no power to decide on private finance initiative contracts on Moscow's behalf - how the city government finds money for Moscow's underground is a matter for them and them alone.

And the city gets its money in a staggeringly simple way. Half of every Muscovite's income tax goes to the municipal budget. So, even though Russia's average income tax is only 13%, it still gives the city a budget of $7m a year - even though the days of the rouble's hyper-inflation are over, the US dollar is still king in Moscow, and big sums are always measured in dollars.

That may be why, when much else in Moscow is still undergoing the difficult transition from communism to a peculiarly unregulated form of capitalism, the underground still works like clockwork and leads the world. There is no hanging around wondering when the next train is coming. If the sign says one minute, that is when it will be, and you hardly ever wait more than two minutes.

'We decide what kind of public transport the city is to be focused on,' says Mr Ordzhonikidze. 'It began with the construction of the metro in the 1930s. Eight million people use the metro daily, we also have 5,000 buses and 650 trams.'

Keeping a city of 9 million inhabitants moving is a major undertaking and is not made easier by the anarchic traffic system. One of the results of Russia's head-long rush into capitalism is planners' inability to control the rise of private car use. Regulation sounds too much like communism.

You can drive anywhere in Moscow and park almost anywhere. Russians respect few rules of the road, and often drive bangers that would be illegal in Britain. The predictable result is something like gridlock, and the city government does not seem ready to take on the motorist.

When communism fell in 1991 there were 300,000 private cars in the city. Now there are 2.5 million and the nearest Mr Ordzhonikidze has to a solution is more road building and repairs.

The truth, according to city minister Grigori Antyufeev, is 'the transition from communism to capitalism was done too fast and with not enough caution'.

Wealthy Muscovites are enjoying the fruits of deregulation and have yet to learn their quality of life depends on some of the regulations they dumped along with the other detritus of communism.

Mr Antyufeev is responsible for tourism and trying to get more foreigners to visit the city. He has launched a huge charm offensive aimed at western tourists. I was in one of no less than 20 groups of western journalists being flown in to meet the city's top brass and view its delights. Mr Antyufeev complains only 46,000 UK visitors came to Moscow last year.

He wants to dispel the image his city acquired in the terrible years after 1991, when the currency was so debased even people with jobs could not get enough to eat and the city became synonymous with crime and drugs.

It is true the city is very different from when I visited in the mid-1990s - safer, more westernised, much more like just another great international city. There seems to be a branch of McDonalds on every other street corner.

Mr Antyufeev remembers with irritation a German audience asking him if they eat cats in Moscow.

Mr Ordzhonikidze says: 'Our biggest problem is drugs. We have a lot of crime, but we are not in the world's top 15 crime cities. Moscow is a safe place for tourists to come.'

But tourism will not be helped by the events of 11 September and their aftermath. As soon as he heard about the bombing of the World Trade Center, mayor Yuri Luzhkov telephoned New York's mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

'We have very good relations with New York and a regular exchange of visits,' says Mr Ordzhonikidze.

The possibility of Moscow becoming the next target is very much in his mind. Russian president Vladimir Putin has been unexpectedly firm in his support for the American bombing in Afghanistan. Mr Ordzhonikidze says Russia was ahead of the world in anticipating terrorist attacks.

'Long before the events in New York, one-and-a-half years ago, President Putin suggested the creation of an international organisation against terrorism. It doesn't make a difference how people are killed, we all struggle with the consequences.'

Unlike the Greater London Authority, the city government controls education. Shortly after 1991, the city's schools were crumbling and its teachers were on starvation wages, but there's been much change since then, he adds.

Nationally, Russia is now spending more on social policy than on defence for the first time since the first world war. Nearly half of Moscow's total budget is now spent on social policy, including health and education.

'Each year we build 15 new schools in Moscow, and Moscow teachers are much better paid now,' says Mr Ordzhonikidze.

But most of the new schools rely on private sector sponsorship and investment, and many of them find ways of selecting children of wealthy parents. Some, for example, make it a condition of entry that parents pay for regular foreign trips. The privately sponsored schools can pay their teachers better than the run-down state schools. There are no nationally agreed pay rates, and schools without private sponsorship still pay their teachers badly.

The city has problems, but its government has real power, a budget to use in whatever way it thinks best, the backing of its people and a clear vision of a better future. Who is to say it is worse off than London or New York?

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