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Analysis & Opinion
17.02.10 The Villain Of The Villa
By Roland Oliphant

It has been almost a month since police turned residents out of their homes in the middle of the night and the bulldozers moved in to flatten the “illegal” community of Rechnik in the West of Moscow. That demolition was frozen on February 5 pending an investigation by the Prosecutor General’s office, but the Moscow City authorities have continued their zealous crusade against supposedly illicit developments elsewhere. Professionals working in construction and real estate often note that it can take years to obtain all of the necessary permits to build something in the Moscow area. So could all these buildings really be illegal?

On January 27 Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily that he would move against the neighboring Fantasy Island luxury village. On February 3, Oleg Mitvol, the head of the Moscow’s northern prefecture, asked prosecutors to examine the legality of several buildings in the artists’ community at Sokol in northwestern Moscow; and on February 17 city bailiffs said they were preparing to destroy a yacht club on the banks of the Moscow River.

Yuri Luzhkov is the kind of Mayor who gets things done – when he became mayor in 1992 he was welcomed as an antidote to his predecessor, the ineffectual Gavriil Popov, and his hands-on style got him re-elected three times before Vladimir Putin cancelled gubernatorial elections in 2004. But he has never had the cleanest of reputations in Moscow. A January survey for the Levada Center, an independent pollster, confirmed what everyone who has ever had a conversation with a Moscow cab driver already knows: that most Muscovites (57 percent) have no doubt that their mayor is corrupt, and specifically that he promotes the business interests of his wife, Elena Baturina.

Baturina is Russia’s richest woman and the founder and president of Inteko, a construction company that – according to many a rumor – has done suspiciously well out of city contracts. But the Levada poll does journalists the service of showing just how widespread that hearsay is – something that could only otherwise have been reported in the most anecdotal terms. The gubernatorial couple may take some comfort from the fact that Muscovites do not necessarily disapprove – or not that much, anyway. The same poll found that more think he is a good (34 percent) rather than bad (19 percent) mayor. Most, however, are simply indifferent (42 percent).

None of this is especially secret; wisdom about the mayor’s perceived corruption is often followed with a shrugged “well, he gets things done.” But the relationship between the city authorities and the real estate business has been brought into the limelight in the recent weeks by a sudden – and somewhat brutal – campaign against “illegal” housing developments.

It all began in the early hours of January 21, when court marshals backed by bulldozers and police arrived to serve eviction notices on the residents of Rechnik, a community of luxury (and not-so-luxury) homes on the banks of the Moscow River just west of the city center. It was dramatic – Russian and foreign media delighted in detailing how the authorities arrived at three a.m. in an attempt to bypass protesting residents, turned the “refuseniks” onto the street in temperatures of negative 20 degrees Celsius and began the demolition immediately.

The authorities said the 42 houses on the demolition list had been built illegally inside a national park with strict environmental protection laws, and that they were acting on a court order to bring them down. And it is true that Rechnik had been at the center of a legal battle for some time. Oleg Mitvol, then-deputy head of the Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources, an environmental watchdog, found the development was illegal as early as in 2006. So the writing has been on the wall for some time.

But there are still some straws of hope left for the residents. On February 6, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev waded into the feud, ordering a stop to the demolitions until the Prosecutor General’s office could complete a report.
It soon became clear that Rechnik was only the beginning. On January 27, the day after the demolitions at Rechnik began, Luzhkov told the Moskovsky Komsomolets daily that he would move against the neighboring Fantasy Island luxury village. On February 3, Mitvol, now head of Moscow’s northern prefecture, asked prosecutors to examine the legality of 30 developments in the artists’ community at Sokol, for which “it is unclear who gave permission;” and on February 17 city bailiffs said they were preparing to destroy a yacht club on the banks of the Moscow River.

But could all these buildings really be illegal? Maria Asestrova, an architect at the Soprikin&Puzireva architectural bureau who has worked on two of the developments in Sokol that Mitvol has raised questions about, is livid at the suggestion. “In the 1990s things could have been built illegally because everything was in complete chaos. But at least since the end of the 1990s, since 1998 to 2000, everything has been built legally,” she said. “We had two projects there, built in 2004 and 2006 respectively, and they had planning permission; we had meetings with local residents, who approved the project; the Moscow Heritage Committee approved it; the utilities companies approved it. You can’t say anything here was unauthorized.”

It’s a different point that when the owners of the two properties went to the Moscow Heritage Committee to retrieve archived copies of the approvals they were told that the documents were nowhere to be found. “They’ve been moved – the question is, where?” Asestrova said.

It doesn’t take a real estate professional like Asestrova, or even a Moscow taxi driver, to make the point that all of these places – Rechnik, Fantasy Island, Sokol, and the yacht club on Karamyshevskaya embankment – are prime real estate worth billions. As one Rechnik resident told Radio Liberty, “we weren't bothering anyone…and then some kind of oligarch, a very big one, needs this land. This land is worth approximately $1 million per 100 square meters.”

The implication, should it need spelling out, is that the land is being cleared not for a park, as City Hall insists, but for the benefit of some influential property developer. The residents of Rechnik pointed to the supposed connection with Luzhkov and his wife, according to the Moscow Times, filing claims for compensation not only against the mayor, but Baturnia and her brother, Victor Baturin (the Moscow City Court, however has frozen the hearing of those claims until the outcome of the Prosecutor General’s investigation).

But that may suit one man very well. Relations between the Kremlin and Luzhkov, the most entrenched and easily the most defiantly independent governor in Russia, have never been easy. Recent moves have made it look like the Federal Center is looking to finally oust him, and the Rechnik controversy will “without question” be used against him, said Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information. “Luzhkov is to Medvedev what Mikhail Khordokovsky was to Former President Vladimir Putin,” said Mukhin. “And there is definitely a move to demonize him in the media.”
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