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Website on building repairing

Pile it on Putin

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HOUSE THAT: Founder Aleksei Navalny attributes the site's success to deep public anger over the deplorable state of housing in Russia

Getting building repairs done has been a major problem in Russia, but an Opposition-sponsored website is now changing that.

Not since Joe the Plumber have contractors taken on such political overtones. In a city where it is often impossible to get a plumber or any other repairman, somebody just figured out how to fix the pipes - and replace light bulbs, scrub off graffiti and patch leaky roofs. Throughout Moscow and other Russian cities, such elementary building repairs are suddenly in full swing as the city's craftsmen, their reputations for surliness, laziness and drunkenness undiminished, are hurrying from one appointment to another.

Delighted Muscovites are crediting a new website for the unaccustomed Calvinist work ethic. Called Roszkh, it streamlines the process for filing complaints about maintenance of the communal areas of apartment buildings, like hallways and entryways, that remained public property after post-Soviet privatisations.

Stymied by a loss of momentum after street protests, Russian opposition leaders had been casting about for other approaches to remain relevant through what promises to be a long tenure for President Vladimir V Putin. Aleksei Navalny, a blogger and political activist, hit upon the idea of the website, which is run under the auspices of his Foundation for Fighting Corruption.

"It's difficult to say when the next wave of protests will come, " Navalny said in an interview about his new site, named after an acronym Russians use for their combined utility and building maintenance bills, ZhKKh.

Roszkh was an instant sensation. Since the site went up on November 8, 28, 354 users have filed 45, 835 complaints, mostly in Moscow and other large cities. So far, repairmen have fixed about 2, 600 reported problems. That may not sound like much, but in Russia it qualifies as extraordinary.

"I live in an old five-storey building where the hallway has no light and no windows, " one Muscovite, Boris Frantskevich, wrote in a post. It seemed it would be that way forever. But on a lark, he tried logging a complaint on the website. "Just today, I walk out of my apartment and an electrician is digging in the wires, " Frantskevich wrote. "Wow, he's fixed the light. "

Navalny attributes the site's success to official sensitivities to a deep vein of public anger over the deplorable state of housing in Russia, and particularly in Moscow. In a leaked letter, Russia's chief housing inspector issued an order that the complaints on Navalny's website be addressed immediately.

The inspector, Nikolai Vasyutin, clarified the government response in a letter to subordinates : Applicants needed to be helped immediately, not in spite of the site's political character, but because of it.

"It's become obvious this is a policy by the opposition to discredit all levels of the government, " the letter said. "But this shouldn't confuse the organs of the state housing inspection. " It instructed city officials to counteract the tactic by fixing problems quickly.

Public opinion surveys indicate that the steady rise in ZhKKh fees is the issue that upsets Russians most;a planned increase was delayed during presidential elections last winter, only to kick in this year.

The fees have been rising faster than inflation. Many Russians are incensed about paying more - currently about $130 a month in Moscow, and less in other cities - while hallways, even in upscale buildings, are often yawning black tunnels, splattered with graffiti and reeking of septic odours.

These problems have become a vulnerability for Putin, but one largely of his own making. The governing political party, United Russia, went to great pains to ensure that it dominated not only national but also regional and local politics, often suppressing opponents to do so. The party also dominates city councils.

As Navalny, a former real estate lawyer, has been gleefully pointing out, this means that every broken light bulb and burst pipe is now the party's problem.

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