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In home of Kalashnikov, Russians fight plan to turn mall into drone factory

Jan. 26, 2023 Updated Thu., Jan. 26, 2023 at 8:57 p.m.

By Robyn Dixon Washington Post

As Russia seeks to mobilize its industries and citizens to fight its war on Ukraine, a group of angry small-business owners and residents in one city has shown there are limits to the sacrifices they are willing to make as they fight to keep a shopping mall from turning into a drone-production plant.

With Russia’s economy under pressure from Western sanctions and its war effort faltering after major setbacks last year, the Defense Ministry has demanded that arms and weapons producers work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to increase military production.

Izhevsk, 620 miles east of Moscow, famous as the home of the Kalashnikov weapons plant, is part of Russia’s drive to dramatically increase the production of rockets, shells and drones. As a measure of the city’s importance, former president Dmitry Medvedev visited Tuesday and held a meeting of the commission charged with speeding up military production.

Izhevsk drone company Aeroscan, which recently took over the Italmas shopping mall, served eviction notices last month to all but one of the mall’s businesses and plans to repurpose the space as a drone-production plant.

Local resident Oleg Zhitnikov has organized a petition against the plan, signed by nearly 5,000 people within two weeks. The shopping and entertainment center houses a water park, cinema, a children’s entertainment park, clothing stores, cafes, fast-food outlets and retail facilities.

In a nation where even the mildest criticism of the war in Ukraine is ruthlessly repressed, opponents of the project have been at pains to underscore that they do not oppose drone production in general, just not in their backyard.

“Let’s say ‘No!’ to this crazy idea. Let’s leave kindergartens to preschool children, schools to schoolchildren, shops to buyers and residents of their safe apartments,” the petition says.

It calls the drone-production plan “either greed or sabotage” by a local tycoon with connections to the Defense Ministry.

“Don’t let a billionaire do whatever he wants with our beloved city and with our families! After all, this creates a precedent to place hazardous production inside a dense residential area,” the petition on continued.

But local authorities have backed Aeroscan’s right to evict tenants and build whatever it likes on the premises. The first deputy prime minister of the regional government, Konstantin Suntsov, said that no one could stop the mall owner from choosing its own “vector of development,” even if this caused dissatisfaction.

“This is the policy of no barriers to business. That’s why the authorities of the republic don’t interfere in the situation,” he told local media outlets.

At a news conference Tuesday, Tatyana Grigoryeva, who lives next to the mall, told local media she was opposed to the plant because of the noise and traffic, saying she would be forced to relocate.

“If there is a plant here, how and where will the children walk around the vast territory of the enterprise? My youngest child will go to first grade next year, and I am already thinking of moving him and my eldest son from School No. 71 to another school. Because I’m scared,” she said.

Others complained about emissions from the plant and risk to local residents.

“It’s shameful that the leadership of Udmurtia does not listen to us,” another resident said at the news conference, referring to the local republic. She gave her name as Yekaterina. “But we will keep fighting. Let’s go to court, and we will defend our legal rights. Nobody can stop us.”

Marina Demeshkina, who runs a cafe at the water park complained at the news conference that local lawmakers and Izhevsk authorities were ignoring their complaints.

“We write complaints – no one responds to them,” she said. “We are not against the production of products necessary for our army. We all need a win. If such products, drones, will benefit the country, then of course we are all in favor.

“But why place the plant in the middle of a residential area, in a shopping center made of frail structures?” she said, in comments reported by local media outlet Udm-info.

The answer to that may lie with well-connected Izhevsk tycoon Alexander Zakharov, who is named by the petition as the figure behind the plan to convert the shopping center. While his involvement could not be confirmed, he did say last August that malls stocking Western brands should be turned into drone-production plants, Vedomosti newspaper reported at the time.

“As a person born and working in a city of gunsmiths, it was bittersweet for me to see powerful factories built in Soviet times turned into shopping centers one after another,” he said, according to Vedomosti.

“But there is a way to quickly increase the production of unmanned vehicles. We have developed a concept for the re-equipment of shopping centers that mainly traded Western brand goods before the start of the special military operation, into factories for the production of three types of domestic drones,” he said in the speech to employees of his own drone company, ZALA Aero Group.

Aeroscan, the company that will be taking over the mall, is owned by Nikita Alexandrovich Zakharov, who is believed to be Alexander’s son.

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