Russians become poster boys for debts

A novel way of exposing those who fail to pay their utility bills has been adopted by one company in central Russia. The faces of its worst-offending customers have been plastered on giant billboards across the city.

“You've been hanged!” is the slogan of the campaign that's made an example out of some of the worst utility bill non-payers in the small town of Dzerzhinsk.

The billboards were taken out by the local energy company, causing a national media firestorm.

One of the ‘stars’ of the campaign claimed that water used to flow out of the toilet bowl and flood his flat on a regular basis. But the utilities company responded that the pipes were older than the house and there was nothing they could do.

So not only has the campaign failed to shame them into paying their outstanding bills, it has also enraged them.

Evgeniy Razunkov and his two siblings live with their mother. She is the only one with a job. They are nearly a $1,000 behind in their payments.

“I lost my job as a loader. People are being laid off everywhere. We just don't have any money to pay,” Razunkov says.

The utilities company, NKS, says it has no choice.

The town is more than $20 million behind in its payments, and hundreds of millions are needed to modernize the Soviet-era infrastructure.

NKS claims one in ten clients does not pay their bills, and many of those either can afford to, or have simply failed to fill in the applications for government help.

“When the heating goes out in the middle of winter, nobody is going to say what a compassionate man I am. Why should decent, law-abiding payers sponsor those who refuse to pay?” asks CEO of NKS, Ilya Moklokov.

But authorities are threatening to take legal action.

“They have violated multiple areas of the law. You simply cannot publish someone's personal details and photos without consent. We understand the company's position but they've gone too far,” according to Mikhail Teodorovich, a regional director with the Federal Anti-Monopoly Service.

The posters may have to be taken down, but the problems – ageing infrastructure, a population that got used to getting its utilities heavily-discounted in Soviet times, and new private companies that are struggling to fulfill their functions – won't go away so easily.