Politics of Death: Muscovites march to save city's green lungs

    by Claudia Ciobanu
    Tuesday, 20 June 2017 16:08 BST

TRF/Oleg Yakovlev

Activists fighting to save a band of forest that rings Moscow from development are facing death threats

By Claudia Ciobanu

WARSAW, June 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Yaroslav Nikitenko, a 29-year-old physicist and environmental activist, woke up on April 12 to a frightening sight.

Graffiti daubed next to the door of his Moscow apartment read 'Shut the hell up or....'. Alongside was a drawing of a gravestone bearing Nikitenko's name, all of it ringed in a scrawl of black crosses.

Nikitenko got the message.

The threat was an attempt to end a high-profile campaign against construction of a luxury residential complex that will encroach on a well-used and much-loved Moskvoretsky park and ancient pine forest in Moscow's north west.

The young physicist is representative of an emerging, new breed of activists who will put themselves at risk to protest against booming development in the world's growing cities.

Oleg Yakovlev

The Russian capital, home to 12 million residents, has seen an increasing number of community battles to save public parks and spaces from a wave of reconstruction and gentrification that has enveloped the city over the past decade.

Greenpeace Russia estimates that since 2000, about 760 hectares (1878 acres) of green space - or 760 full-size football pitches - have been lost to development.

The environmental group says the city is currently embroiled in about 150 battles over the loss of land. Moscow officials say this re-development is needed to improve housing choice and for the city's economic development.

GREEN LUNGS

Among the public spaces at stake are the city's 'green lungs': the forest belt and system of parks and green wedges that separated residential areas after the capital's Metro system opened in 1935.

The protests are city-wide.

Last year, police arrested and removed Moscow residents who had organised blockades and protest camps against plans for a motorway in Kuskovo Park - in the east of the city - and for a luxury residential complex near Dubki Park - in the north-west.

"Moscow resembles very fast-growing cities from developing countries with aggressive construction policies, like Sao Paolo, Peking (Beijing) or Istanbul," Greenpeace's Vasily Jablokov told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"In the Russian Federation, all the laws are violated and there is a systematic capture of green zones because our government does not respect the public good."

Written requests to the government for response were not answered.

More protests are expected this year over a plan by Moscow's mayor, Sergey Sobyanin, to tear down 8,000 shoddy, Soviet-era blocks of flats and re-locate about 1.5 million residents.

RUSSIAN GRAFFITI

Nikitenko says he does not know who tried to frighten him with the deadly drawing at his door but he took the threat seriously and reported it to the police.

In a letter of response from the police, which was seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, they did not accept it was a serious death threat and refused to investigate, saying it was "not a crime against public order".

"When I got involved in public action, I always know it's dangerous, I know activists get beaten up when they organise demonstrations," Nikitenko told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yaroslav Nikitenko, a 29-year-old physicist and environmental activist, is pictured in this file photo. Courtesy: Nika Maksimyuk

"After this happened, I feel even more insecure. But I don't want to hide, I just want to continue my normal life."

Nikitenko and hundreds of fellow Muscovites joined forces last year to launch a campaign against a proposed, 22-storey, luxury residential complex at 21 Zhivopisnaya street, which stretches along the edges of the Moscow river.

Zhivopisnaya translates as 'picturesque' and the area lives up to its name: it is a green oasis of pine forests popular with families and walkers alike.

According to a letter sent last year by Greenpeace Russia to Mayor Sobyanin, the land on which the apartment block is to be built is not zoned for high-rise construction.

The plot, they say, is zoned for sports and recreation and the area is deemed a protected waterway on the Moscow river. Construction of high-rise buildings under Moscow's land use plan in these areas is banned.

Greenpeace said trees from the centuries-old Moskvoretsky pine forest have already been cut down to pave the way for the project, threatening an eco-system which helps filter air pollution for two major Moscow districts.

Foundations for the proposed high-rise block were laid at the end of last year and cover a 0.8 hectare (2 acre) plot that was originally owned by a Russian trade union.

The Capital Group, one of Russia's oldest real estate companies which already has a portfolio of more than 70 properties in the capital, had been leasing the land from the union and had tried, unsuccessfully, for permission to redevelop the block into flats for more than a decade.

Two years ago, however, the engineering and construction firm, Stroitel OOO - a subsidiary of Kortros, which is owned by billionaire Viktor Vekselberg - took over the lease.

Moscow's city administration gave the green light in less than a year, including all the planning permits needed to construct the high-rise apartment building, activists said.

Kortros officials failed to respond to repeated requests for comment on the campaigners claims.

A spokesman for Moscow's city administration told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that site on which the building is constructed is outside the boundaries of any protected green area and construction of the block is permitted.

LEGAL CHALLENGE

According to activists, however, the proposed building is in such close proximity to the protected green areas that any roads or associated infrastructure will damage the natural areas.

This was confirmed by Moscow's independent environmental prosecutor's office, which launched a legal challenge against the proposal in March.

The court case alleges that Stroitel OOO built an asphalt road with parking on land that is deemed protected as part of Moskvoretsky Park and did so 'without the necessary permits'.

Prosecutors argue that the road encroaches on the protected park and asked the court to order its demolition.

The case continues but nobody is prepared to venture a guess for when it will conclude.

Sergey Menzheritsky, a member of the public environmental council of the Moscow parliament, a citizen's advisory body, rounded on the city's administration for not holding public hearings on a park that is used by so many Muscovites.

He also voiced alarm about the dangers of putting a new apartment block so close to an existing gas plant, saying Vekselberg was prioritised over ordinary citizens.

"What is now a public forest used by thousands of people living in the area could end up de facto privatised by the inhabitants of the luxury residential project," Menzheritsky told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

This is part of our series “The Politics of Death”, reporting a global wave of violence against communities fighting for their lands. To find out why, read the full story here.

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