Chop It All Down! Molotov Cocktails versus Woodland Defenders in the Town of Zhukovsky
July 13, 2016
Over the past month, several environmentalists in the Moscow Region town of Zhukovsky fighting against the illegal logging of trees to make way for construction have suffered at the hands of persons unknown. Two of them have had their cars set on fire and burned, while a female activist had a Molotov cocktail thrown at her windows. Municipal authorities see no reason to worry yet, although the victims are certain someone has been trying to intimidate them.
Around four o’clock in the morning on June 15, a Molotov cocktail was tossed at the windows of the flat occupied by Zhukovsky activist Olga Deyeva, who lives on the first storey of a block of flats. Hearing a bang, which set off the alarms of cars parked in the yard, she looked out the window and saw shards of glass on the pavement. What turned out to be a broken bottle was wrapped in electrical tape and a thick layer of solvent-soaked cloth. According to police summoned to the scene by Deyeva, the persons unknown had failed to ignite the cloth, which had been soaked in a flammable liquid. According to Deyeva, the assailants had aimed at her window but had missed, and the bottle had hit the window frame.
A week and a half later, on June 27, a Ford Focus owned by Mikhail Yuritsin, an environmentalist and member of the grassroots organization Lyubimy Gorod (Beloved City), was torched and burned. According to Yuritsin, he heard the loud sound of glass being broken at around three in the morning, looked out the window, and saw his car burst into flames. Yuritsin was unable to extinguish the fire, and the car was completely destroyed. Cars parked next to it were mildly damaged, as firefighters arrived quickly on the scene.
In addition, a car used Svetlana Bezlepkina, a Yabloko Party member who sits on the Zhukovsky city council, was torched in the early hours of July 7. Although the car was registered to the council member’s sister-in-law, Bezlepkina often used it herself.
“Yes, I have used the car. I used it for business when I needed, and everyone knew it. You couldn’t think of anything more cynical: my brother and sister-in-law had their wedding that day. After celebrating at a cafe, they came home and parked the car, and during the night it was torched. Then the police showed up, took our testimony, and that was all. They didn’t really take a hard look at anything. On the other hand, what do you expect from a police force who back in the day guarded loggers chopping down a forest,” said Bezlepkina.
A suspicious incident happened the same day to Fyodor Karpov, leader of the Yabloko Party’s Zhukovsky branch. Persons unknown torched an abandoned car, which had recently been left outside the gate to his garage.
Karpov related the sequence of events.
“The abandoned car drifted around the yard for two weeks, and then it ended up in front of my gate. I gently shoved it away from the gate, but on a day I was attending a court hearing on illegal construction in the forest, it was torched.”
Except Karpov, all the victims are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Zhukovsky city hall and businesswoman Irina Gorodnova, who has been given permission to build a consumer services center on Nizhegorodskaya Street and a children’s center on Semashko Street. Both lots slated for construction are located on woodlands in the city limits.
Local residents began vigorously fighting to save their woodlands in 2012, when the authorities announced the construction of an access road from the M5 Ural Highway that would pass through the Tsagov Forest. When workers began clear-cutting a twelve-hectare site, grassroots protests erupted throughtout the city, and activists set up a camp in the woods, later dispersed by private security guards. The protesters proposed several alternate routes for the road. Several months later, Sergei Shoigu, who had recently been appointed governor of Moscow Region, intervened in the conflict. He criticized the actions of the Zhukovsky authorities and spoke of the need for dialogue with the public, but his statements had no impact on the situation. The access road to the city was built through the forest.
A year after the conflict over clear-cutting in the Tsagov Forest broke out, Alexander Bobovnikov, mayor of the city, lost his post. He resigned after a meeting with Andrei Vorobyov, who had succeeded Shoigu as governor of Moscow Region. Andrei Voytyuk was elected to Bobovnikov’s post. In 2013, protests against logging in Zhukovsky broke out again when it transpired that municipal authorities had issued long-term leases to woodland lots. 5,000 square meters of woodland were allocated for construction of a consumer services center on Nizhegorodskaya Street, while another lot measuring 6,000 square meters was allocated for construction of a leisure center in the woods near the railroad station. Activists entered into a prolonged legal battle with city hall and the potential developer.
“According to the documents, in 2010, Natalya Lebedeva, head of Stimul-K, Ltd., obtained preliminary permission to rent the lot. But Lebedeva herself claims she never came to Zhukovsky in 2010, and signed no rental agreement. In 2012, she decided to get rid of the company and she transferred it to another person so he would close it. But he failed to do this and, apparently, used the company. Later, the lot was transferred to Gorodnova,” explains Olga Deyeva.
According to Deyeva, permission to lease the lot had been issued, apparently, by Stanislav Suknov, Bobovnikov’s deputy, who served as acting mayor of Zhukovsky for a couple of months in 2013.
“We have been trying to prove in court there was no preliminary agreement to rent the land. The paperwork was drawn up after the fact so as not to violate the city’s General Development Plan, adopted in 2012,” explains Deyeva.
The right to rent the woodland lots now belongs to businesswoman Irina Gorodnova. Zhukovsky activists are afraid municipal authorities might try and bypass the 2012 General Development Plan and rezone the woodland lots to permit construction of residential buildings and shopping centers on them. That, ultimately, was what happened to the lot on Nizhegorodskaya Street. Without holding public hearings and without involving city council members, the Zhukovsky City Court rezoned the area from recreational use to residential use and thus suitable for redevelopment. Immediately after obtaining the construction permit, Gorodnova also obtained a permit from municipal authorities to fell deadwood. According to Deyeva, however, workers cut down healthy pine trees while clearing the deadwood.
“When this came to light, Gorodnova batted her eyes and said, ‘I don’t know how it happened. I was abroad at the time.’ Policemen guarded the logging process. Ultimately, the ‘illegal’ loggers were not located and punished, but the story made such a big splash that Gorodnova was unable to open the consumer services center she had built on the lot. On the basis of this violation, the municipal authorities went to court and terminated the lease on the land,” says Deyeva.
Now it was Gorodnova’s turn to go to court. She demanded the court recognize her ownership of the consumer services center, and in October 2015, Zhukovsky City Court granted her claim. Activists asked city hall to appeal the decisions, but the local authorities failed to do this.
“City hall was not about to challenge the ruling. They could not even explain why. So now we have been handling the litigation ourselves,” explains city council member Bezlepkina.
The appeal hearing has been scheduled for July 25.
The status of the second woodland lot, on which Gorodnova’s company had planned to build a leisure center, has not yet changed. It is still zoned for recreational uses, where it is forbidden to erect any structures.
In February 2015, however, activists discovered large round holes in the bark of pine trees on the site of a planned clear cutting. The holes had been presumably made with a drill. A total of seventy-eight trees had been damaged in this way. Local residents marked each of the trees with green paint and photographed them, subsequently filing a complaint with the police. After an inspection was carried out, police refused to open a misdemeanor investigation. Staff at the Zhukovsky municipal environmental and land management technologies department had assured police there was no danger of the trees weakening and dying. Many of the damaged pine trees that once grew on the lot slated for development have now indeed died. The forest’s defenders believe they were damaged deliberately. Developers thus decided to get rid of trees that were preventing them from launching construction.
According to Valentin Ponomar, who has been representing Gorodnova’s interests in court, the land plot rented for construction of the leisure center is now not being used by anyone in any way.
“The lease runs out soon, in 2017. During this time, the city has to issue a construction permit. There is no permit at present, just as there are no plans to build the children’s center,” Ponomar explained to Mediazona.
According to Ponomar, without such permission, the development company cannot commence construction in a green belt zone. Moreover, city authorities cannot issue such a permit due to the land plot’s status. Ponomor was unable to explain why his client concluded an agreement with the city on such conditions.
In an interview with Mediazona, Zhukovsky Mayor Andrei Voytyuk said he was unaware of the arsons of the urban activists’ cars, although he had heard about the Molotov cocktail thrown at Deyeva’s window.
“I’ll tell you this. If they had wanted to set fire to her, they would have done it,” the mayor commented on the incident.
He expressed his willingness to meet with the urban activists victimized by criminals.
“They can meet and talk with me if they wish, but so far no one has reached out to me,” said Voytyuk.
Bezlepkina is certain the torching of the cars will never be investigated.
“Now it is a matter of intimidation, but no one knows how far it might go. Our families are fearful. They have asked us not to attend the court hearings. They are afraid they might be in danger,” says the city council member.
The case of the Molotov cocktail tossed at Deyeva’s window has been assigned to the local beat cop.
“I went to see him, but, apparently, they are not planning to make any complicated moves in this connection. There was no damage either to my health or my flat. So I wouldn’t rule out the police will be working in keeping with the principle ‘No body, no case,” Deyeva admits.
Translated by the Russian Reader