MYTISHCHI: Property developers are racing to build up prime land in Moscow’s leafy outskirts with plans that involve razing entire villages and felling acres of forest.
Now determined locals are fighting back to stop the developers in their tracks and preserve the environment, local heritage and their homes.
And with some success, such as in the village of Vostochnaya Perlovka, a settlement ranging from simple wooden cottages to roomy brick family homes with some 4,000 residents, northeast of the capital.
Local authorities announced a plan to demolish all of its 600 houses to allow a property developer to build high-rise blocks there, increasing the population to 25,000 people.
Horrified at the prospect of losing their beloved homes, the residents immediately teamed up to campaign against the demolition.
“If the project goes through, the population density of this area will be more than 13,000 people per square kilometre — more than twice that of Hong Kong,” which has close to 6,800 people per square kilometre, said lawyer Andrei Yumashev, who represents the residents.
He urged the property company, at the very least, to discuss the details of its plans for Vostochnaya Perlovka with locals.
“I couldn’t live in a concrete building,” said Viktor Karachun, one of the coordinators of the campaign, who works as a company’s commercial director.
“Here, I have a large wooden house and an apple orchard. I have no problem parking and my children can spend the whole day outside.”
He published an online petition in July 2016 against the planned development by local company Zemelniye Resursy which has gained 2,000 signatures.
But neither the petition nor dozens of letters and protests made any difference, forcing residents to go to courts.
In December, the Supreme Court responded by reducing the scale of the project — banning the developers from building 20-storey blocks and massive shopping centres and reducing the number of residents to 10,000 — something the locals view as a considerable victory.
With an already bulging population of at least 12 million, Moscow is a magnet for the upwardly mobile from all over Russia and the former Soviet Union.
But commuting to central Moscow for work while living in the surrounding region is a more affordable option for most.
Just six kilometres (4 miles) from Vostochnaya Perlovka, residents of another small settlement called Stroitel, or Builder, are fighting the felling of 255 acres (103 hectares) of forest, known as Chelyuskinsky Wood, for house building.
Residents accuse the local authorities of illegally selling the forest to a Moscow property developer called Novaya Zemlya, which wants to build a new district with 20,000 inhabitants.
In December, after MPs supported the residents’ complaints, local prosecutors launched a probe and determined that the construction plan was against the law.
But the developers have not given up their plans and are continuing to destroy the forest, say residents, who have seen trees felled in recent months.
“We moved here (from Moscow) so our children could breathe fresh air. In this forest, every tree is dear to us,” said one resident, Maria Tyabut.
The destruction of natural areas for construction is becoming increasingly common in Russia, said Mikhail Kreindlin of Greenpeace-Russia, since “property developers benefit from loopholes in the law”.
“Housing construction is a sector that gives good returns, not just for the investors, but also for the local authorities,” Kreindlin said.
“Even if you rule out corruption — which is frequent — these projects fill up the coffers of the local authorities with taxes.”
But the problem is that “soon people won’t have anywhere to go for a walk or fresh air to breathe,” he warned.
However officials and property developers argue that such construction projects are essential.
“There is practically no free land left in Moscow,” said Vladimir Voronin, who heads a large Russian property developer, FSK Lider.
“Moscow region attracts people from other regions who want to earn money and make careers in the capital,” said Voronin, adding that the economic crisis prompted by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine had not stopped them coming.
Last year, 8.8 million square metres of housing was built in the Moscow region, including 5.5 million square metres of highrise blocks, according to the Moscow region’s construction ministry, the highest rate in the country.
In 2011 the municipal government massively expanded the area that is part of the capital by extending the limits of “Greater Moscow” by 1,500 square kilometres to the city’s southwest.