Society

How St Petersburg is put in charge of rebuilding annexed Mariupol

November 7, 2022
Governor of Saint Petersburg Alexander Beglov and the regional political machine he presides over are doubling down on efforts to restore the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol to its pre-war state. 
Governors in Russia have played an active role in the country’s war against Ukraine. Recently, they have been key actors in executing the Kremlin’s mobilization decree and containing social fallout. While some governors have been discrete in their contributions to Russia’s invasion, others are taking a more public stance and cheerleading the war. One of the ways they have been doing this is by traveling to Ukraine’s occupied territories and engaging in other ways of legitimizing the occupation regimes.

On this front, the Saint Petersburg regional government recently announced that it plans to spend billions of rubles on mobilization and restoring the occupied Ukrainian city of Mariupol, according to journalists from Rotunda. On November 2, legislators in Russia’s northern capital approved a budget amendment that increases the regional government’s reserve fund by RUB 5.7 billion, the second increase to the fund this year after an additional RUB 15 billion was requested in October by the governor’s office, Smolny. As a result of the increases, the fund for this year now totals RUB 48.2 billion.

Smolny's reserve fund is part of the regional budget and basically acts as a rainy day fund for unforeseen expenditures, such as in the case of natural disasters or other emergencies. Just weeks ago, journalists from Fontanka learned that regional authorities planned to use an undisclosed amount of money from the fund to subsidize yet another fund called Pobeda (Victory), which the governor’s office has said finances the reconstruction of Mariupol. Earlier, officials avoided questions from journalists for clarification on the sources of money for the opaque Pobeda fund.

Several deputies from the regional legislative assembly did previously call on Saint Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov to allocate additional money from the reserve fund for equipping mobilized soldiers in the area. As journalists from Rotunda write, money from the regional budget is planned to go to volunteer fighters, known collectively as the “Governor’s Battalion.” Likewise, the journalists write that the government of Saint Petersburg is using public funds to purchase equipment for recently mobilized troops (although officials claim the Defense Ministry supplies soldiers with everything they need).

The budgetary changes have not been without their detractors. The three-deputy Yabloko faction opposed increases to the reserve fund, as well as the proposed regional budget for 2023. Boris Vishnevsky, who heads the faction, called the draft budget “inert.” According to him, the budget proposal reduces and freezes social expenditures, such as healthcare, education, and social support services for residents of Saint Petersburg.

“Once again, a huge reserve fund of 30 billion rubles is proposed. The government spends it at its own discretion, without parliamentary control… Now the administration is changing the state program ‘Ensuring Law, Order and Security’ so that the money from the reserve fund goes to the ‘Victory’ fund, which finances the reconstruction of Mariupol. I believe that residents’ taxes should be used to solve the city's problems, not to finance the expenses caused by the special operation launched on February 24," Vishnevsky was quoted as saying by Zaks.ru.

Despite the protest from Yabloko, 42 out of the total 50 deputies in the regional assembly voted for the adoption of the 2023 draft budget in its first reading. Meanwhile, there were only three total votes against, four abstentions, while one deputy was absent from voting.

The restoration of Mariupol appears to have turned into something of a pet project for Governor Beglov, who has sought to curry favor with Putin by showing his unfailing support of the so-called “special military operation.” Demonstrating loyalty has taken on added importance for Beglov as he faces attacks from Wagner mercenary group founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, who himself has risen up Russia’s pole of power thanks to the performance of his troops-for-hire in the war. Earlier this summer, Smolny announced that Saint Petersburg and Mariupol would become sister cities (“brother cities” in Russian) and that the former would help restore the latter after military engagement in the city ceased. In September, the governor visited Mariupol, which was largely reduced to rubble during fighting and subsequently occupied by Russian forces in the spring.

In August, investigative journalists from Fontanka and IStories learned that among contractor companies working on the restoration of Mariupol are those affiliated with state security services and public officials in Saint Petersburg. Some of these companies likewise have connections to high-profile criminal cases. For example, a company called Stroyekspert, which now does repair work on the damaged Mariupol Philharmonic concert hall, is owned by Denis Motuz and Galina Arkhipova, who were taken into police custody in July for charges of embezzling public funds.

Another company engaged in the restoration of Mariupol is Lenmontazh. According to Fontanka, the company is undertaking work to restore heating, hot and cold water supply and sewage, as well as installing boilers and new plumbing. Lenmontazh is a major state contractor in Saint Petersburg and helped with the construction of the Gazprom sports area and Lakhta Center skyscraper.

More recently, Saint Petersburg’s legislative assembly expressed official gratitude to Ivan Orynchuk, the owner of the construction company Tekhnostroy, for his contribution to the reconstruction of Mariupol. Rotunda writes that Governor Beglov has known Orynchuk for more than ten years. Between 2009 and 2012, Orynchuk led the restoration of the Kronstadt Sea Cathedral, a project that Beglov, who was at the time Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, took under his patronage. Another company owned by Orynchuk, Petersburg Renaissance, is known for failing to payits employees, and the Russian government officially lists it as an “unreliable supplier.”

Meanwhile, journalists from The Village obtained a copy of an alleged master plan for the future development of Mariupol. According to the document, Russian authorities intend to develop the occupied city up until 2035. The plan contains details on the restoration of individual housing units and apartment buildings, as well as the rebuilding of transportation and social infrastructure. The document also lists boosting employment to pre-war levels as one of the main priority areas for development, while urban planners suggest maintaining manufacturing facilities in the city, like metallurgy, engineering, food processing, and chemical production.

Though Saint Petersburg continues to be a major contributor of financial support for restoring Russian-occupied Mariupol, it is not the only region to do so. And Alexander Beglov is not the only regional head in Russia to express an interest in restorative work in the destroyed city. So too has the head of Chechnya, Ramzan Kadyrov, made public statements about rebuilding Mariupol.

In late April, Kadyrov claimed on Telegram that Russian-installed city authorities planned to adopt development plans similar to those used in the Chechen Republic following the wars that took place there. He added that Ivashchenko had allegedly expressed the desire for close cooperation with Chechnya, while noting also the contribution of Chechen security forces in "liberating Mariupol from nationalist battalion fighters."

Beyond the claims, the actual role Chechnya is playing in restoring the city remains unclear. However, in early September, Kadyrov announced the restoration of the Suleiman the Magnificent and Roksolana mosque in Mariupol, which was damaged during fighting.

Digest by Mack Tubridy for the Russia.Post editorial team.
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