Open-air trading locations in major sporting arenas and other open spaces on the city's landscape will fall into oblivion next year, as City Hall has finally moved from rhetoric to action in its drive to create a "civilized" and modern shopping culture in Moscow.
According to a decree signed in November by Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, all markets located on Moscow's Luzhniki, Dynamo, CSKA and other stadiums are to be liquidated on or before Jan. 1, 2003, and the directors of the sporting arenas have been ordered to relocate the shopping facilities or lose licenses to operate them, City Hall spokesman Sergei Tsoi said in statement carried by Interfax.
The three stadiums were specifically mentioned in the new order because their directors had openly flouted a similar order issued in 2001.
But this time around, Luzhkov issued a serious warning that failure to comply with the latest injunction would have far-reaching consequences in apparent anticipation of another round of foot-dragging from the stadiums' directors, who probably would not readily surrender facilities that reportedly bring in multimillion-dollar profits every year.
The latest order is in line with Luzhkov's declared mission to clear Moscow of what he has frequently called "non-civilized shopping facilities," as the open-air markets are known for their rowdiness, unhygienic conditions and other vices.
Specifically, city officials have complained of the influence of organized crime on these markets and massive tax evasion, arguing that the fact that most traders do not use cash registers has made it extremely difficult and, at times, even impossible to trace their sales transactions and levy taxes on their revenues.
Since the adoption of the program to overhaul the city's retail facilities, 86 out of about 190 open-air markets, mostly in the food sector, have either been relocated to other sites or completely shut down. In their place, City Hall has either built or plans to build Western-style retail malls with cash registers, parking lots and other attributes of modern shopping, which it hopes will be free of any organized-crime influence.
However, City Hall noted that Luzhkov is not against open-air markets per se, but only against the way they operate. This position has been reflected in a new order, which allows new open-air markets without the earlier shortcomings to be set up near these stadiums. City Hall said this provision was necessary so as not to disorient Muscovites, to whom these places have long been shopping havens for cheaper household appliances and other everyday goods and commodities.
The affected stadiums' directors contacted by The Russia Journal refused to comment on the issue, and specifically on their readiness to comply with the latest order. They also refused to explain why a similar order was defied two years ago.
However, one director, who requested to remain anonymous, decried the City Hall decision as lacking economic logic.
"Let's take for granted that some of the allegations against the open-air markets are genuine, but we pay taxes, and, more importantly, these facilities provide employment for thousands of people who otherwise would have been jobless," he said.
"And, I'm not even talking of the millions of customers who are used to shopping here every year because of the fair prices that are available," he added.
Meanwhile, many retail experts say the open-air market phenomenon and its role in providing Russians with basic goods following the acute deficits of the early 1990s has become an issue of sociological importance, as it has no precedent in the world, at least not on the scale it had occurred in Russia.
The experts said the open-air markets such as the Vietnamese, Chinese and Afghan markets that sprang up immediately after the economy was liberalized more than a decade ago, were the harbingers of a bona fide free-market economy in Moscow.
Maxim Karbasnikoff, head of the retail department at the Moscow office of Jones Lang LaSalle, said these markets really helped Muscovites at some point by giving them the opportunity to buy goods in one location in contrast to the Soviet-era retail principle which was commodity-specific, such as TsUM and GUM, and did not carry any groceries.
"And open-air markets still play a major role today in the city's retail sector, controlling about 44 percent of the retail market. However, at the going closure rate, we expect about 1 million sq. meters of retail space in the open-air segment to be closed by 2005," he said.
Karbasnikoff, who is a French citizen, noted that Moscow open-air markets differ from those in Western capitals such London or Paris in terms of organization, cleanliness and legality.
However, he noted that on-going closures could cause tension in the retail sector. "The ongoing closure of open-air markets could lead to an acute shortage of retail space in Moscow, which needs to build more modern shopping facilities in part to replace the closed open-air markets as people who used to shop there need to shop somewhere else," he added.