By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
Published: February 1, 2010
MOSCOW — The bulldozers came at night, flanked by armor-clad riot police officers, to clear the houses of a small neighborhood here at the behest of Moscow’s mayor, forcing residents out into subzero temperatures.
The mayor, Yuri M. Luzhkov, said they were living on the land illegally. But as more and more homes — some stately, some mere shacks — have come tumbling down over the last week and a half, an uncharacteristically fierce backlash has broken out, challenging one of Russia’s most powerful politicians. Politicians, human rights activists, media organizations and even nationalist and anarchist groups have come to the defense of the neighborhood, called Rechnik. Legal or not, these critics say, the demolition operation has crossed the line. “The methods used to resolve this problem were completely unacceptable,” Vladimir Lukin, Russia’s government-appointed human rights ombudsman, told the Interfax news agency on Thursday. He called on the Prosecutor General’s office to investigate what he called “gross violations” of Russian law.
On Monday, residents and their supporters blockaded the entrance to the neighborhood, preventing crews from resuming demolitions.
Over a dozen homes have now been destroyed, and Moscow officials have told Russian news agencies that the operation would continue throughout the week.
Sergei Mironov, the speaker of the upper house of Parliament, said the city had “discredited” itself.
“I am personally disturbed by the fact that the Moscow government decided simply to throw these people out on the streets despite the minus-20-degree temperatures,” he wrote on his blog, citing the Celsius equivalent of minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit.
Even government-run television channels, typically gushing in their coverage of top officials, have focused their cameras on dumbfounded and teary-eyed residents watching the bulldozers tear their homes apart.
Once a charming neighborhood of about 200 single-family homes, a rare sight in a city dominated by hulking apartment blocs, Rechnik has become a battleground in a long-running fight between the government and homeowners over Russia’s ambiguous land laws.
The Soviet government set aside the plot of land on the Moscow River as a gardening collective in the 1950s. Residents claim that Soviet-era permits, which many bought or inherited from the original holders, give them de facto title over the land that their houses stand on. The city says those permits are invalid, and never allowed for the large mansions and quaint cottages that the residents built.
Mr. Luzhkov, who in his 18 years as mayor has not been given to tolerating affronts to his authority, has stood firm. In an interview published Thursday in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, he called the residents “imposters” squatting on land that he said was zoned to be a park. “These cottages are located in a protected environmental zone,” he said. “The city has been saying for years that construction in this area was forbidden.”
To prove his resolve, he has promised next to send his bulldozers to a luxury housing development neighboring Rechnik, where several government ministers are said to live.
Critics have accused the mayor, whose wife is a billionaire real estate developer, of using ambiguous land laws to acquire prime property and resell it to private interests. Just over a year ago, several dozen similar homes were destroyed in a neighboring community that was in the same nebulous legal situation.
President Dmitri M. Medvedev, who has the authority to remove Mr. Luzhkov, has been silent on the issue, as has Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, who appointed the mayor to his current term. After years of threats and legal battles, police officers in black riot gear finally swept into Rechnik at about 3 a.m. on Jan. 21, rounding up several dozen residents who had blockaded the entrance with their cars, said Konstantin Shtoiko, one of the residents. “We called the police and they told us that they were conducting a special operation as if we were terrorists in Dagestan,” Mr. Shtoiko, 39, said, referring to the volatile region neighboring Chechnya.
About a dozen homes have been demolished in the last week, and crews began tearing down more on Friday, officials said. Several elderly residents have reportedly been hospitalized with chest pains, as have others who were beaten with nightsticks.