MOSCOW (Reuters) - At 4 a.m. on a freezing morning, court officers in riot gear pulled Boris Piskunov from his cottage, tossed furniture from windows and stood guard as a mechanical digger ripped the house down.
Critics say the sudden demolition of a row of houses on valuable land by the Moscow River demonstrates the unpredictable application of property rights and lack of legal transparency in Russia, problems that have long scared foreign investors.
Images of elderly residents blocked by baton-wielding officers and furniture strewn around ruined summer homes have struck a chord in a country where millions of dwellings lack proper permits and court decisions can depend on connections.
The dispute over the condemned neighbourhood kilometres from the Kremlin spotlights President Dmitry Medvedev’s promised fight against corruption in Russia’s judicial and law enforcement systems.
Government critics say the residents’ plight proves that despite Medvedev’s words, selective justice rules in Russia.
“If you are an official with influence and power, your property rights are guaranteed. If you are none of the above, your property can be taken at any time,” Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin wrote in his blog after visiting the site.
Armed with a ruling that the houses had been built illegally over the past five decades, riot police stormed the Rechnik neighbourhood last week and detained at least 16 people, mostly Piskunov’s neighbours, witnesses said.
“The methods that were used to solve these problems were completely unacceptable,” the Russian government’s rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said Thursday, the Interfax news agency reported.
He said he believed human rights violations and legal violations had occurred.
Eleven houses had been destroyed by Thursday afternoon, in temperatures which dipped below minus 25 degrees Centigrade, with 31 more dwellings slated for demolition soon.
Andrei Stolbunov, a lawyer with the rights group Spravedlivost (Justice), said that “more than half the private homes in the country were built with the same violations. The question is why they decided these were the ones to knock down.”
City authorities cast the residents as opportunistic nouveaux riches who built mansions in a protected park.
The residents, some of whom live in modest wooden cottages, insist they have owned the land for decades and are being targeted by officials keen to develop the prime real estate.
“It’s pure lawlessness. I just didn’t think this could happen,” said Piskunov, a 32-year-old businessman.
OPPOSITION CRIES FOUL
Private homeowners, who often spend years building their properties, have fewer resources to fight official challenges than foreign corporate investors. But the demolitions have done little to reassure anyone about property rights here.
“These things absolutely affect what people think of Russia,” said an executive with a European firm managing around $500 million of investments in Russia. “Russia’s biggest issue is its image. Why do you have to go and bulldoze these dachas?”
The family of Lyudmila Roman, 49, like many of the residents, was allotted a patch of land in Rechnik after helping to build Moscow’s shipping canals in the 1950s. She spent summers in the house built on it since childhood -- until it was torn down this week.
“It’s not even the house I’m upset about. I just don’t know how I can live in a country where the authorities act this way. Where the law means nothing,” she said as she watched the digger plunge through the roof.
The authorities say the canal workers were given temporary permission decades ago to use the plots to grow food. They have seized on the fact that some plots were later sold to wealthy Muscovites who built mansions with neo-classical balconies and heated garages.
“Imagine, in the United States you’re given permission to grow apples and pears and you build a five-storey house, 1,500 square meters with a tennis court,” said Oleg Mitvol, a senior city official who has campaigned against illegal buildings.
Stolbunov, who is representing many of the residents, said he is trying to prove that bailiffs violated legal procedures and that the homes were built before the area was declared protected parkland.
But in a country where even the president has bemoaned the lack of judicial independence, he said he was not optimistic.
“You fight like a fool on points of law, but then a senior official will makes a phone call and that’s that,” he said. “We have a saying in Russia: The law is like an axle -- you can turn it whichever way you please.”
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