Party's over, but the booty is up for grabs in Russia

September 21, 1991|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Now that the many thousands of buildings once owned by the Communist Party have become the spoils of the August revolution, an awful lot of newly minted democrats are springing up to lay claim to them.

Billions of rubles' worth of real estate is at stake. But nothing is simple. Every loose end leads, inevitably, to a knot.

Today's case in point is an old red office building hard by the Moscow Zoo on the Sadovoe Koltso, or Garden Ring Road, a horribly misnamed 10-lane thoroughfare full of exhaust fumes and frighteningly casual lane markings.

Several organizations want the building. One of the chief players is the head of the local district council, who enthusiastically invokes democratic decision-making, who conjures up images of stylish development and who has a very curious business card -- because of what's been inked out.

Before Aug. 22, this was just another building owned by the Communist Party, a small part of its vast holdings. After the party couldn't extricate itself from the failed hard-line coup, its activities were suspended and its property seized.

Its total assets were valued at 4 billion to 5 billion rubles. But now, everyone is realizing that it's a huge headache as well, with untold potential for chicanery.

The result is the kind of tug of war that is being played out for thousands of buildings all over the country -- even the Lenin Museum on Red Square, which is being fought over by the mayor of Moscow and the nearby Historical Museum. Suddenly everybody has a good cause. Suddenly everybody is a democrat.

To try to insert some order and fair play into the picture, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin decreed that no government agency should give out any seized property until a workable, comprehensive system for doing so can be created.

Right now, the building in question is occupied by the Timber Commodities Exchange and a sort of advanced journalism school. Both tenants have been there since Communist days.

But the Moscow Law University says it had been promised the building -- and now its students and faculty want to move in.

It may be that exchanging timber commodities is the sort of non-Communist commercial activity that the democrats are supposed to be encouraging, whereas the law school was very much a part of the old system. But that's not exactly the issue.

The more immediate problem is that one government body now has possession of the building but not the authority to dispose of it, while a special committee has the authority to dispose of the property but doesn'thave possession.

The law students, who demonstrated yesterday in front of the Moscow Soviet, or city council, said they are desperate. Their current quarters are hopelessly cramped and decrepit, they said.

"We cannot wait," said Alexander Achuba, a third-year student. "At any moment, the roof might fall in. We'd be buried under it. We're too young to die."

The students secured a "license" from Yuri M. Luzhkov, Moscow's deputy mayor, giving them the rights to the building. (Mr. Luzhkov is also deputy prime minister of the Soviet Union, but that's another problem.)

A license is not an eviction order, however. Nobody knows how to proceed, or who has the power.

"Each citizen of this country now thinks he can do whatever he wants -- and no law -- just whatever he has in mind," said Mr. Achuba.

So the students went down to the city council looking for support.

The first member they ran into was Alexander Bogolubov.

"They ought to go somewhere else to solve their problems," he said. "It seems people want to solve every little problem outside this building."

He stomped off unhelpfully into the drizzle.

But then a real ally came rushing up. Mikhail M. Yashin is both a city council member and chairman of the Krasnopresnensky District Council, which covers the neighborhood where the old red office building is located.

Within moments, Mr. Yashin was pulling blueprints out of his briefcase and talking about development plans and joint ventures and foreign investment and dollars.

And, yes, of course, the district council fully supports the university, he said. It would be a key element to the development plan.

"The council is a self-governing organization," he said. "What does this mean? It means the rule of the people -- the people in this neighborhood. This is democracy. We'regoing to work together right now. Democracy is going to win."

Mr. Yashin handed over his business card. What's curious about it is that he has carefully crossed out one line. But anyone holding the card at just the right angle to the light can still read that Mr. Yashin, staunch democrat, was until recently a member of the city's Communist Party leadership -- the former landlords.

How could he be advocating for the university, he was asked, when Mr. Yeltsin had expressly decreed that formerly Communist property be kept in government hands for the time being?

"We don't demand that it be given away," he replied. "We just make a proposal for developing the region -- to transfer that building to the students. It's not important who is occupying that building right now.

"In our district," he added, with a touch of the old Communist religion, "the people control the real estate."

Actually, the Moscow City Council possesses the real estate, and a special committee of the central government is supposed to have sole power over disposing it.

Mr. Yashin was greatly cheered by the news that Mr. Luzhkov, the deputy mayor, had backed the university. The students said they are going to move in Monday, no matter what.

"Now, I don't want any fistfights," Mr. Yashin called out cheerily to them before rushing off to another urgent project.

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