MOSCOW -- The Russian capital may be dirty, dangerous and cold, but it's captivating as well and full of opportunities -- and now the city plans to make new residents pay just for the privilege of living here.
It will be a two-tiered system: Russians moving to Moscow will have to pay $4,450; foreigners, a whopping $44,500.
The tax, which was proposed by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, was approved by the city Duma last week and is likely to go into effect by the end of the month.
Its avowed purpose is to help pay for the city infrastructure and services that additional residents will require. But it clearly is designed to keep intact the old system whereby only a select few could be allowed in from the provinces. "It's outrageous," said Svetlana Gannushkina, co-chair of a group called Civic Assistance that helps refugees. "What on earth does it mean?"
For decades, people were allowed to live in Moscow only if they possessed a special permit, called a propiska.
The Soviet system put sharp curbs on people's right to move within the country, and that was one of the many issues that prompted human rights activists in those days.
The new Russian Constitution, approved by voters last December, specifically forbids propiskas. But earlier this year Mayor Luzhkov announced that Moscow was going to keep them anyway -- and President Boris N. Yeltsin let it be known that he wouldn't interfere.
Now a new propiska will carry a hefty price tag. Even the lower rate for Russians amounts to 500 times the minimum monthly salary. And the higher rate applies not only to rich Westerners, but to Ukrainians, Belorussians and other formerly Soviet people as well.
Opposition to the new law has brought together an unusual combination of human rights activists and apartment brokers, who obviously don't want to see their business ruined.
Natalya Bogatikova, a member of the Memorial Human Rights Center, said she believes the law invites chicanery, selective enforcement and bribery. Real estate agents agreed.
There are about 9 million people living in Moscow today on propiskas, and an additional 4 million to 5 million living here without them, and are subject to expulsion.
Izvestia reported yesterday that in one two-month period earlier this year, 2,000 people who were buying apartments in Moscow applied for propiskas. Nobody knows how many thousands of others simply moved here.
Under the new law, police can confiscate the apartments of people who don't have propiskas and haven't paid the new tax. And apartments here today are worth anywhere from $30,000 to $200,000, and up. (The law does not apply to temporary residents, such as diplomats, correspondents or foreign business people who don't plan to stay indefinitely.)
A few types of people will still be granted free membership: military officers, intelligence agents and members of the tax police.