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Russian Debt Crises: Russia’s in the red - by Sean Guillory

On 5 April, in the town of Iskitim in Novosibirsk oblast, four masked debt collectors broke into the home of Natalia Gorbunova, beat her husband and 17-year-old son, and then raped her in front of them.

Gorbunova had taken a 5,000 rouble ($75) microloan from two companies, Money Now and Money Quickly, in 2014. She couldn’t make the payments.

But how could she? According to them, Gorbunova now owned them 240,000 roubles ($3,586). The beating and rape weren’t the loan sharks’ first resort. They’d been threatening her family on the phone for two years. A week before the collectors raided Gorbunova’s home, they tried to assault her son, but he managed to get away. The identity of the assailants is still unknown. The cops are scrambling to find them.

Many in the foreign press have noted that revelations of Vladimir Putin’s connections to the Panama Papers weren’t reported in Russia’s federal media. But the reality is that for most Russians who are struggling to stave off constant harassment, threats, and outright violence from predatory lenders,

Putin’s alleged two billion dollars matters far less in their immediate daily life. It’s a reminder of the old Russian adage that “God is high above and the Tsar is far away.”

Nevertheless, federal media did report the crime against Gorbunova and her family. National broadcaster NTV even has a topic page devoted to debt collector violence. Indeed, there is growing public concern — in 2015, the amount of outstanding personal debt rose by 25% to 870 billion roubles ($13 billion).

Collector violence is even getting the attention of the Tsar and his minions. For example, Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrikin has taken the Gorbunova case under his personal control.

Russia’s usually lackadaisical politicians have also been jolted into some action. Several have spoken out about the need to reign in debt collectors, and in Kemerovo oblast, Governor Aman Tuleev and his regional legislature banned collectors outright. (Collection agencies quickly denounced the move as “populism” and the Justice Ministry said that the law was a blow to “economic freedom”.)

The Duma has passed the first reading of a bill that restricts debt collectors’ activities and their interactions with debtors, prohibits harassment, threats and violence, and raises fines by ten times to two million rubles.

A week ago, even Putin spoke out and demanded an end to the lawlessness, threats, and psychological and physical abuse by “quasi-collectors”.

Read more: Russia’s in the red | openDemocracy

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