A Day in the Life of the Governor
Why Vasily Yurchenko dreams about 1 trillion roubles 08/7/2012, 07:06
For a long time, the attempts of Sib.fm's correspondents to get into the Novosibirsk corridors of power and see how government officials make the decisions, which the population of the entire region has to live with, were fruitless. At first, the press office had no idea how to organise the event. We asked to start early in the morning, at the very start of the working day, and finish late in the evening, when everything has come to an end. Then it was necessary to approve the schedule with all participants. During the not particularly active (on both sides) negotiations, a proposal gradually took shape: not just to move around the various offices in the government building, but to spend a day with Vasily Yurchenko, governor of the Novosibirsk Region. Firstly, he's the most important and secondly, if Sib.fm do get permission to observe the head of the region for a few hours, the ministers will be on our radar in any case.
At long last, after months of waiting, the final date was fixed. The day's agenda looked promisingly diverse and included travel, meetings, conferences, several ministers at once, and even a live broadcast.
"Come over on 1 August at 7:20am; we'll meet at the main entrance," was our invitation from Irina Sheludkova, the governor's press secretary.
We arrived at 6:40 and had a look around.
A street-cleaning machine melancholically passed along the road, followed by a tractor that brushed away the water. Street cleaners were working on the pavement, sweeping away the fallen yellow leaves.
Cleaners and maintenance staff are the first to get to the government building. Their working day begins shortly after 5am.
"Today, they took the keys at 5:20," says one of the security guards. He also told us that, in fact, the governor arrives before the other government officials (he usually manages to report for work before 7:40), and Health Minister Olga Kravchenko is always the last to leave. We also find out that up to 1,000 people visit the government building each day (700-900 on average).
The governor arrives at the expected time – 7:32 today. The workers in uniform salute. We say hello and rather stiffly start small talk. Yurchenko's voice seems strict.
The narrow lift we use to get to the governor's office on the fourth floor brings us a bit closer together. We take some pictures but, on the whole, keep awkwardly quiet, hoping that conversation will start to flow in his office. The doors open, Vasily Yurchenko leaves the lift and swiftly walks down the corridor. (Later, his press secretary Irina told us that since she has started working with him she has learned to walk so quickly in high heels that she is considering taking part in a stiletto 100 metres.)
Having entered the office, we mechanically continue to follow the head of the region as he heads towards another room (let's call it a rest room). However, Irina asks us not to enter. Sib.fm's correspondents didn't manage to see what's hidden behind that very dark cherry wooden door with their own eyes. Judging by what we heard throughout the day, there's a sofa and a sink where you can wash your hands.
The governor sits behind at his desk, turns on a laptop and, while it is loading, begins to read a summary of what has happened in the Novosibirsk Region over the last twenty-four hours. This includes reports from the Ministry of Emergency Situations, the Ministry of the Interior, the State Road Safety Inspectorate, and information on the amount of precipitation, stored animal feed and milk produced by cows.
There are several impressive leather folders on the table. The tags indicate that they include "Invitations", "Fact Sheets", "Government Documents" and "Telegrams and Faxes".
"Do you have to look through all of these?"
"I have to work through them!"
We need to ask questions but feel uncomfortable. We don't want to distract the man from matters of national importance. On the other hand, if we keep quiet, there'll be nothing but pictures in our article.
"Vasily Alekseyevich, let us know if we start to get in the way, ok?"
"When do you usually wake up?"
"At 6:15, usually."
In addition to the desk, there's a conference table for ten people, a bookcase with tinted glass doors and models of aeroplanes in the office. The air conditioner is on and a map of the Novosibirsk Region hangs on the wall directly opposite the entrance.
"What other information is in the reports?"
"Data on income and expenditure in the regional budget. We received 1.113 billion roubles ($37m) on 31 July."
Someone phones at 7:52. It turns out to be the head of one of the districts in the region. The next call is at 8am – the first deputy governor. We still aren't doing our job very well and aren't asking many questions. During the third phone call, we overhear the phrase "power of attorney".
"Who was it?"
"Strukov (Regional Economic Development Minister – Sib.fm comment),"
"Why does Strukov need power of attorney?"
"To sign an agreement with the Ministry of Energy."
A tanned Anatoly Dyubanov enters the room; it's his first day back from holidays. That's probably why the head of the regional Department of Information and Communication Technologies just reeks of optimism. By the way, journalists call Dyubanov the "IT-cop" because he worked in law enforcement prior to his appointment in regional government.
At this point, we are asked to leave. We go to the waiting room, where we are offered tea and coffee. We accept, realising that the private conversation with Dyubanov will last at least five minutes. While the tea is being made, we meet the Governor's assistant Yevgeny Malofeev.
"I've been working as Vasily Alekseyevich's assistant since 1 February 2007. It's easy for me to remember the date as my son was born six days later."
"Did you call him Vasily?"
"No," smiles Malofeev.
Yevgeny Malofeev draws up the governor's schedule, approves it and makes sure that it is observed. He attends practically all events and promptly finds documents and information at Yurchenko's request. He's really the governor's right-hand man.
We return to the office.
"What are these marks you make on documents, except for your signature and the date?"
"The letter 'K' stands for 'control'. There are different flags – KK and KKK. So KKK is 'a heightened level of control'. You can add exclamation marks too."
"Don't you feel like your signature is too long when you have to sign a lot of documents in one day?"
"What kind of pen do you have? Is it a fountain pen?"
"Yes, I fill it myself. I got it for my birthday back in 1985 from the chief of the technology office at the Sibselmash factory. I worked there at the time."
Malofeev enters the room and says that we need to leave in two minutes. A visit to the construction site of the third bridge across the river Ob is on the agenda.
Andrei Ksenzov, first deputy mayor of Novosibirsk, is stood right under the supports of the third bridge on the left bank of the river and is talking about resettlement. The situation becomes clear. Three different parties – the owner, the city council, and the court where the case is being heard – are assessing the value of a house that it will be necessary to compensate after demolition. According to the court's appraisal, the value of the house is even lower than the city council's offer. The residents are dissatisfied.
Officials are discussing a house that was jointly owned by a woman and her nephew. The nephew sold his share as part of the resettlement programme and moved. His part of the house was demolished. The woman stayed in the remaining part of the house for the winter. The exposed wall wasn't adequately insulated, so temperatures were rather low in the remaining rooms.
As for construction of the bridge, the authorities are waiting to receive funds from the federal budget.
Construction of the third bridge across the Ob in Novosibirsk began in February 2010 and is due to be completed in 2014. The total length of the bridge and its access roads is about 5.5 kilometres. The cost of construction is estimated at 14.8 billion roubles ($480m). The company Sibmost is carrying out the main works.
The mayor of Novosibirsk entertains other participants of the on-site briefing as the governor answers journalists' questions.
The next stop on the itinerary is the Leninsky District of Novosibirsk, where company KPD-Gazstroy is building a new housing estate. The neighbourhood is called Chistaya Sloboda (Clean Settlement) and by the end of 2013, 45 9-storey prefabricated concrete panel buildings will be built there; 19 such blocks of flats are already in use. It is mostly budget housing built under state contracts for military personnel, World War II veterans, orphans and citizens who have been moved out of dilapidated houses. More than 1700 flats have already been sold.
Construction workers raise the issue of transport accessibility to the new estate: level crossings are often closed and people get stuck in traffic jams. The governor says that a new overpass that will bypass the crossings will be designed in 2012.
"Where now?" asks the governor, getting into the car.
"Back to the office," replies Malofeev.
We return to the government building, where two construction themed meetings are being held. One is focused on comprehensive development plans for the land around Krasnoobsk, the second is about the problems of training modern architects and designers.
The quality of expert appraisals, which are now performed by different construction companies, is also discussed. The current process leaves much to be desired, so it's necessary to look for alternative options. For example, by opening an appraisal centre at the Novosibirsk State University of Architecture and Civil Engineering. The visitors leave at 11:45, having agreed to continue their work. The governor heads to Lenin Square to get an electronic signature.
We go back to the government building after the briefing on Lenin Square. We are also in for a video conference with the district heads (on the availability of public services, as it happens) and a visit to the technology park in scientific suburb Akademgorodok. But before all that, it's time for a (quite unexpected) lunch, which the governor often goes without. There are a few tables in the room where members of the regional government eat their lunch.
The menu for 1 August is diverse and the same for everyone. There are six types of salads (mostly vegetable), lecho (vegetable stew with peppers), squash paste and two soups. The choice of main courses caters to almost every taste: there's fish, chicken, beef and pork. Nevertheless, the minced beefsteak with an egg for 80 roubles ($2.60) is a clear hit. Side dishes include pease pudding. There's no compote on the menu, but to make up for that there are watermelon and melon cocktails, alcohol-free mojitos, and the Sochi 2014 dessert with cranberry, condensed milk and cedar nuts. The prices are reasonable.
After lunch, there's a video conference with the district heads. The electronic provision of services is the first topic of discussion. The governor tells everyone that the Novosibirsk Region has a leading position in introducing new technologies as part of the Electronic Government project: "We've invested too much in this to fall behind now for any reason." Then he read out the list of districts that have fallen behind.
The district heads, almost identical in appearance, gaze at the governor from the screen. Each one of them has a different excuse.
The second topic is investment in the districts. Economic Development Minister Aleksei Strukov complains that the districts do not provide full information on the volume and structure of investments. They only send statistical data for reports.
"We are interested in a specific list of investment projects," explains Strukov. "Why are no municipal programs supported by investments?"
No one works on marketing the region. Some mention tourism, but it's just talk that doesn't lead to any clear projects. It also needs to be considered that tourism and recreation are seasonal activities.
"What's impeding your progress? What are businesses in your area afraid of?" is the governor's next question. "You see, we can't get a full picture of what's happening in your districts from the centre of the city. My dream is that the gross regional product will be one trillion roubles ($33bn) by 2015. But to do that we need to work more actively, including at a local level. It's important to remember that there's no such thing as too many investors."
We leave for Akademgorodok, where a meeting with participants of the Academpark Summer School has been arranged. On the way, Vasily Yurchenko calls his wife Natalya. It's just one of those "How are you, I'm fine, see you in the evening" conversations. We arrive at the Technopark and the first question for the governor is predictably about housing.
"Last week, it was reported that a Russian Academy of Sciences worker gave birth to quadruplets and the municipality presented her with an apartment. Is there any other way for young researchers to get housing?"
"Two buildings for residents of the Technopark will be ready by 1 September. We financed construction with public funds. It's very comfortable accommodation and the prices will be much lower than market rates."
"Is it possible to work more efficiently with Russian Railways so there will be more trains to the city centre from Berdsk and Academgorodok?"
"Last week I held a meeting focused on the development of that railway link. We discussed both upgrading rolling stock and increasing the comfort of passengers. New stations will be built, for example, near Morskoy Prospekt and we're renovating the station in Berdsk. (The station Seyatel that currently serves Akademgorodok is a freight station that was built for construction workers.)
On our return from Akademgorodok we immediately join the governor at a public forum in his office, where residents from the region can come and discuss their issues with him. The first man turns out to be from the governor’s hometown. He lives in Karasuk and there is no water in his house.
"We don't know who to ask for help anymore. Two years ago, we had problems with heating that were sorted out when we wrote to your public forum. They somehow 'found' us some heat back then."
"We'll find you some water too. I'll get someone to deal with your problem."
The second visitor asks the media to leave the office, as her question is too personal or delicate.
The next visitors also have construction and housing problems. Their homes are to be demolished due to the construction of the third bridge. They complain about the unfair valuation of their houses and show photo evidence to support their points.
"We also demand that journalists stop slinging mud at us. We're living in stressful conditions as it is, not knowing what's going to happen next. Then there's the "Borok" quarry close by that makes life difficult for us. They work 100 metres away from our houses. According to standards, it's supposed to be 1000 metres! Our windows get smashed. Recently, a 40-kilogram stone flew into our back yard!
The governor returns to his office and immediately calls for Roman Shilohvostov, head of the Land and Property Regulations Department.
"Look at the quarry. How many code violations are there? Report back to me."
"Look at these photos," Yurchenko shows Shilohvostov the pictures brought by residents. "Here's a house on a plot of 500 square metres that has been valued at 2.8 million roubles ($89,000). This house on an identical plot – 2.2 million ($70,000). Look at the difference in the quality of construction. We need to sort this out. That story when half of the house was demolished and the interior wall became the outside of the building is absolutely terrible. What are people going to think about the authorities? Nothing positive, that's for sure. I can understand why. Deal with the property valuers, bring in honest experts and request all the information as quickly as possible."
Shilohvostov leaves and the head of the public forum takes his place. Yurchenko starts to look into why activist Daria Makarova has declared to the media that "attempts to address the regional governing body have failed".
"Did they come to the public forum?"
"To me during office hours?"
"Then I don't understand why she's saying that. The regional governing body is the governor, as far as I know.
I send a text to Makarova. From our exchange of messages, it becomes clear that she approached the governor a year ago regarding a different issue. She suggested carrying out an audit of the healthcare system and received a non-committal reply from the Ministry of Health. She then made no attempt to contact the head of the region and came to the conclusion that it was necessary to resolve all remaining issues with the ministry, as they responded to the first question. That's what you call "communication".
The meeting of the Council for the Disabled starts at 5pm. Social Development Minister Sergei Pykhtin reports the results of social infrastructure monitoring in Novosibirsk and the region concerning its adaptation to the needs of disabled people. According to his statistics, only 21.4% of more than five thousand objects are specially equipped and have accessible entrances.
The disabled take the floor. They say that the overall situation is changing. Good quality wheelchairs are being purchased. But the main problem is that they can't access the metro.
"I looked at those rails by the stairs, which are in fact meant for shopping bags on wheels, and thought: God forbid a person in a wheelchair try to go down them. How would he roll down there?" said the governor, promising that their opinions will been taken into account.
We re-enter the office and immediately leave. The governor has a number of personal meetings: with the head of a neurosurgical centre, a new member of the government and the deputy head of the region. We patiently sit in the waiting room when another government employee comes in and asks the secretary to put something in the governor's "Urgent" folder. We leave the government building at 8:10pm.
The live broadcast about security issues is taking place in a glass cube on Lenin Square. Sib.fm's correspondents are already tired and have no intention of staying until the end of filming at 9:30. The governor wasn't planning on going back to the office after it anyway. We quietly say our goodbyes and leave. On our way home, we discuss the governor's busy schedule and effective methods of working with documents.
The next morning we have trouble waking up at 9am. Half the night we dreamt about beef from the government canteen, stones flying into people's faces from the quarry and the flashing blue lights of an escort car weaving through a dense stream of cars. I wonder what the governor dreamt about.