Doing Business In Russia Isn't About To Get Any Easier

Pumping it out in Moscow
Pumping it out in Moscow
Evgenii Sigal

MOSCOW – Earlier in June, during the last congress of the All-Russia People’s Front, a movement created by President Vladimir Putin in 2011, Putin announced that one of his primary goals was to create a new era of industrialization in Russia.

Russia's Minister of Economic Development Andrey Belousov announced in the same meeting that by the end of 2013, Russia could rise from 112th place to 50th place in the World Bank’s ranking of best country in the world to do business. Of course, his announcement was filled with qualifiers: it will be possible only if all of the planned measures meant to improve the investment environment are actually carried out.

During the 2012 presidential elections, Putin said that Russia would make the top 20. That’s pretty optimistic, considering that while Russia is 112th overall, it almost ranks last in some specific categories – for instance, in “getting electricity,” Russia ranks 184th out of 185 countries. In the “dealing with construction permits” category, Russia ranks 178th.

In addition, Putin has announced that the public should be at least 90% satisfied with the quality of government services by 2018. That sort of goal sounds more like a fairy-tale than fact, since not even a totalitarian control over the media and Internet could create that kind of public approval.

It seems that even the Kremlin doesn’t believe these words. In May, Putin criticized the government for adopting laws that were notoriously not enforced. Russia intends to rise to the 17th spot worldwide for importing and exporting, although it currently is in 162nd place in the World Bank’s ranking for “trading across borders.” Russian customs services say they plan to have an 80% satisfaction rate among business people by 2018 – up from 35% today. “We all understand that this is impossible,” the president admitted in his critique of the government agencies.

In total, the Strategic Initiatives Agency has prepared nine different “road maps,” which include 520 measures, of which 126 have impending deadlines for completion. Of those, 58 are completed, 39 are not yet completed and 29 were not even started.

Scaring off foreign investors

But the government is not the only thing preventing Russia’s business environment from improving. There is also a psychological element. According to a recent Gallup poll, while “net hope on economy” rose around the world, in Russia it dropped substantially. If businesspeople in Russia don’t believe that the future will get better, then that can cause a drop in business activity and capital in and of itself.

On the other hand, Russia is a big country with a lot of regional differences – while most rating systems base their grades on the business environment in the capital. But among Russian cities, Moscow rates dead last for business-friendliness. In fact, smaller cities in Russia are much friendlier to business and score much higher on metrics like how easy it is to start a business or obtain a building permit. Regional authorities explain their success by saying that unlike Moscow, where there are numerous major corporations, the only chance they have at economic development is to really improve the investment environment.

Unfortunately, success in some of the smaller cities does not necessarily mean the country is on the right track. The measures proposed by the government are merely cosmetic, and they do nothing to address some of the many factors that scare off businesses. One factor is Russia’s very weak protection for investors –rated 117th in the world, alongside Eritrea. There is also too much “gray-market” business – not quite black-market but not quite clean, either. Then there are threats to business and the protection fees a lot of businesses have to pay in addition to their regular taxes.

Foreign investors are also scared off by political factors, too. Pressure on the media, manipulated electoral processes, laws that violate human rights and the persecution of people with differing political opinions all make foreign companies wary about setting up shop in Russia. It is possible that Russia’s official ranking will actually go up in the next couple years, but there will be neither an investment nor a production boom.

It seems that the Kremlin already has an answer to that. At the People’s Front congress, one of the speakers said that one of the goals for the future was that “every citizen can reach Putin with two or three handshakes.” Of course, the companies that are large enough to be able to discuss their problems with the president don’t have much to complain about even now. But the other companies should pay attention – they have been warned that it might not be worth waiting for a real improvement in Russia’s business environment.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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