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With 'Land Grabs' On Rise, Will Russians Find New Issue To Rally Around?

WATCH: Residents look on helplessly as demolition crews tear down their families' dachas.

MOSCOW -- Nearly a week after bulldozers, police, and demolition crews moved in to destroy several luxury homes in the western Moscow neighborhood of Rechnik, they returned in force on January 26 to tear down two more.

City officials defended the move, saying they were acting on a court ruling stating that the houses had been built illegally. In all, 42 Rechnik buildings are slated for destruction -- including the house belonging to Aleksandr Navrodsky, who watched the early-morning demolition with despair.

"They're demolishing the house next to mine now,” Navrodsky said. “Some decent police officers -- a few of them still serve in the police, fortunately -- told me my house is next."

Many Moscow residents accuse the city government, and its mayor, Yury Luzhkov, of staging regular "land grabs" in order to clear prime real estate of low-budget tenants in order to move ahead with lucrative development plans.

One such case made headlines earlier this month when the historic Muromtsev Dacha, at the center of a bitter property dispute, was nearly destroyed in a fire its residents believe was set deliberately to force them from the property.

But the Rechnik controversy stands apart: many of its residents are not poor dacha-dwellers but some of the city's comfortable middle class. Navrodsky said that the latest controversy seems destined to return Russia to a 1990s-style divide between the very rich and very poor.

"To be honest, I was hoping there would be order in our country,” he said. “But they've destroyed the poor, and now, I guess, they're destroying the middle class. So there will be only oligarchs and the very poor left in the country."

Garden Community

The Rechnik community, based along the Moskva River in the city's Krylatskoye district, has an unusual status. The cooperative settlement was founded in 1956 as part of a system to reward distinguished transportation employees; current residents include a number of World War II veterans.

Riot police stand by one of the remaining homes as the remains of another burn.
According to the original agreement, residents had the rights to build "garden communities," but not to build actual houses. Since then, however, nearly 200 dachas and larger, more extravagant homes have cropped up on the territory.

Long-term residents say they should be allowed to hold on to their property, according to the Russian civil code, which says people can claim a residence as their own if they inhabit it for 15 years or more. A so-called dacha amnesty also allows people who built on Soviet-era cooperative territories without proper documents to apply to have them legally registered.

But the city sees it differently. Several years ago, it expanded the territory of a nearby national park to include the Rechnik settlement and said that the houses violated environmental-protection laws governing the park and must come down.

On January 21, city demolition crews made their first incursion, entering Rechnik at 3 a.m. backed by security forces to hold off angry residents attempting to blockade the one road into the settlement.

Over the next two days, six structures were torn down. Speaking over the din of one home being destroyed, Lyudmila, a Rechnik resident who declined to give her last name, described the late-night confrontation.

"Around 3 a.m., 200 people in black turned up," Lyudmila said. “We can't say whether they were OMON [riot police], or who they were. They started to attack our cars. People who were near the cars were taken away to the police."

No Compensation

The battle for Rechnik has become a kind of cause célèbre in recent days, with the mainstream media following the controversy. Several of the residents have offered colorful pledges to defend their property -- some by coating incoming roads and paths with ice, and, in the case of one man, by setting his pet leopard on any approaching city officials.

Residents describe the destruction that has taken place so far as illegal and brutal. Inhabitants were not served with appropriate eviction notices, or given sufficient time to properly remove their belongings.

In some instances, people were left to stand outside in temperatures dipping below -20 degrees Celsius as their houses were torn down. Police also cordoned off the area, preventing several ambulances from getting through to reach older residents who felt unwell.

For many long-time Rechnik residents, the issue is deeply emotional. But there is a commercial sting as well. Residents are currently being offered no compensation for property worth a small fortune. In some cases, residents may even be expected to cover the cost of the demolition, which can be as much as 2 million rubles ($65,000) per house.

Resident Vladimir Chernov said even a fraction of the land's actual value would be an acceptable payoff for some of the local inhabitants.

"We weren't bothering anyone. We were living here for 53 years, quietly and calmly,” Chernov said. “And then some kind of oligarch, a very big one, needs this land. This land is worth approximately $1 million dollars per 100 square meters. That same oligarch could come and calmly say to us, 'Excuse me, could you vacate this land? We need it. Here's $100,000 per 100 square meters. Take a hike.'"

Residents are also embittered by the fact that a nearby community of high-end luxury homes called Fantasy Island has escaped the bulldozers' wrath, despite falling under the same no-build environmental-protection guidelines as Rechnik.

Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the liberal Yabloko Party, raised the issue before Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin at a State Council meeting on January 22, saying, "They are knocking down the houses of the middle class. Fantasy Island, where bureaucrats and big-business heads live, is nearby. It has the same environmental protection, but no one has touched it. Why?"

The Rechnik dachas are mainly the property of comfortable middle-class families.
Some Russian media have reported that Rechnik is being demolished because it blocks Fantasy Island's access to the Moscow River. But Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama think-tank says Rechnik, despite its solidly middle-class status, is too poor to fight its neighbors.

"Rechnik has ordinary residents. Of the [houses slated for destruction], there about five rich people,” Pribylovsky said. “And the rest are middle class, not even upper middle class -- pensioners from the Agriculture Ministry who were given houses in 1957 and moved there. In Fantasy Island there are generals, FSB officers, lawmakers, and Rechnik closes off their access to the river."

Hot-Button Issue

The city government has clearly been unnerved by the blanket media coverage of the Rechnik controversy, which is seen as part of the state's continued campaign against Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. The city's environmental chief, Leonid Bochin, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" yesterday that Rechnik was slated to become a public park and that Fantasy Island would also face demolition.

The Rechnik issue may also strike a chord with many Russians, who have steadily bought up property and possessions amid the Putin-era stability that followed the financial and legislative chaos of the 1990s. Many Russians were seen as willing to turn a blind eye to the perils of centralized government and regular crackdowns on civil liberties in exchange for a relatively comfortable standard of living.

But several Kremlin moves have stirred middle-class resentment in the past year, as the economic crisis heightened Russian anxiety. Mass demonstrations caught officials by surprise in the Far East in early 2009, when motorists protested a stiff government tariff on imports of affordable Japanese automobiles.

Will property rights be the next rallying call? Sergei Udaltsov, a coordinator with the Left Front political movement, succeeded in gathering some 100 people to protest the Rechnik operation. He says the Rechnik case is an issue that should be of interest to all Russians, who may someday face their own property battles.

"Today they came to Rechnik, yesterday they went to Butuvo, and tomorrow they'll go to any courtyard, to any apartment block,” Udaltsov said. “How can we count on the help of our neighbors in the future if we fail to help them today, simply because it's not our problem? This kind of philosophy only serves those in power because they want to divide us. What we need to do is come together."

But others are more skeptical. Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center says the Rechnik controversy may lack the mass appeal of the auto-import protests, and that many Muscovites may sympathize with the city's argument that it is trying to protecting an environmentally sensitive zone.

"There are violations connected with environmental legislation. I think [Rechnik is] a special case, not a popular one. The masses find it hard to identify with the victims of this conflict,” Petrov said. “When you personally have a car with a right-hand drive, then you understand that there are a million or 2 million citizens who drive these cars too, and you'll take [those protests] to heart. [With Rechnik], it's hard for a person to see it as linked to him in any way."

Pribylovsky of Panorama adds that it may be difficult to drum up mass support for a story that involves relatively comfortable people in the country's most prosperous city, no matter how unjust their predicament.

"What's happening in Rechnik has happened in places like Astrakhan dozens of times,” Pribylovsky said. “People's houses are knocked down, people are thrown out on the street, and nobody knows about it. It doesn't rate even a small mention in 'Novaya gazeta' or a Communist pamphlet. There's no kind of scandal."

Vladimir Kara-Murza and Nikita Tatarsky of RFE/RL's Moscow bureau also contributed to this report.
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    Mumin Shakirov

    Mumin Shakirov is an experienced field reporter and TV host for RFE/RL's Russian Service. He has covered armed conflicts in Tajikistan, Chechnya, Georgia, and the former Yugoslavia. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, Shakirov is the host of the weekly Facets Of Time TV show.

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