Paradise For Rich Is Hell for Villagers

MTVoronino resident Anatoly Nikitin showing the remains of his banya, which mysteriously caught fire in January.
VORONINO, Moscow Region -- The first dead dog was a friendly red mutt named Ryzhukha. She did not belong to anyone, but everyone in the village liked her and fed her.

"It was a neighbor, Vladimir Yegorov, who found the dog with her throat slit near his house last November," said Alexander Morozov, a resident of Voronino village, located 22 kilometers northwest of Moscow.

The body of the second dog, a German shepherd, was found in December, on the main road leading into the village. The dog had been shot in the head, Morozov said.

The odd occurrences did not stop there. A fire engulfed a banya. Rude security guards abruptly blocked access to the nearby river. Telephones rang with menacing calls.

Voronino residents have no doubt who is behind their troubles: Araz Agalarov, a flamboyant, Baku-born businessman with a fortune that Forbes estimates at $1.2 billion.

Agalarov has acquired 11 of the 34 houses in the village and wants to secure the rest to build what he calls the world's most exclusive community for the superrich.

Agalarov Estate, which is to start opening this summer, promises to be a multimillionaire's paradise: waterfalls, a beach resort landscaped with imported white sand, an 18-hole golf course, 14 artificial lakes and 150 mansions, each with a salt-water swimming pool and a price tag of $20 million to $30 million.

Agalarov has boasted that the 340-hectare community is a "new kind of civilization ... a kind of utopian social experiment -- but without poor people."

The villagers see nothing attractive about the "experiment." "This future paradise has become a living hell for us," said Morozov, the disgruntled villager.

Agalarov has failed to respond to more than a dozen requests for comment over the course of the past month. His secretary said he was either busy or out of the office. She refused to provide his cellphone number.

Agalarov's spokesman, Nikita Oganyan, also declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to discuss the project. He would not provide contact information for anyone authorized to talk about the issue at Crocus International Group, Agalarov's giant holding company, which is overseeing the development.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Raisa Novik, center, and Vladimir Yegorov, left, walking outside Novik's home.
Agalarov suggested in November that the villagers had turned greedy. In an interview with TV Center television, he said he had offered the villagers a sizeable sum of money and new homes on nearby land. "But it seems that their appetites have grown. They understand that this represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to obtain a large sum of money," he said in the Nov. 15 interview.

Crocus acquired the 340 hectares of land under the village -- the former Rossia collective farm -- several years ago, a process made possible by the farm's transformation into a joint-stock company in 1992. Crocus then began construction.

Acting on a complaint from villagers, however, the Moscow Region Prosecutor's Office ruled in December that the construction was illegal. It said Crocus had failed to secure the required government permits before starting work. The case has been stuck in limbo since.

In the meantime, the villagers say they are being encircled by the ever-rising Agalarov Estate and facing daily pressure to sell. The unsold houses stand defiantly on pristine, riverside property, threatening to spoil the panoramic views of the superrich who plan to move into the first 53 mansions when they open next summer.

Viktor Bodrov, 84, who cares for his paralytic wife, said pressure to move could not get much worse. One morning last April, he said, he found several builders laying pipes outside his house. After they ignored his demands to halt work, Bodrov forced them to leave by firing his air rifle.

Last spring, the villagers found that the road to the Belyana River, their former recreational area, had been blocked, said Raisa Novik, one of the villagers. Security guards gruffly informed Novik's daughter and grandson that the river was private property and they could not walk there, she said.

"But this river cannot be privatized under the law," Novik said, citing a pledge from regional authorities to uphold a federal law that gives citizens access to rivers. Nevertheless, the river was blocked off by a barrier in spring 2007. Failing to win support from the authorities, villagers took matters into their own hands and demolished the barrier in October.

The villagers are still talking about a neighbor, Maria Yegorova, who sold her house to Crocus. "She told us that her grandson, who served time in prison, had strongly advised her to sell because crime bosses had put pressure on him in prison," Morozov said.

Yegorova could not be located for comment.

Another villager, Anatoly Nikitin, 23, an employee with the Emergency Situations Ministry, said a fire had inexplicably broken out in his family's two-story backyard banya on the night of Jan. 10. He blames arson. "My father was told that our lives here would become a nightmare if we refused to leave," he said.

The warnings are coming from people claiming to be Crocus representatives, he and other villagers said. "First we were offered money, now we receive various kinds of threats, including menacing phone calls," said Vladimir Yegorov (no relation to Maria Yegorova), who found the first dead dog next to his house.

The villagers denied Agalarov's claim that they had been offered the option of moving into new houses in the same area.

Alexander Natruskin / Reuters
Araz Agalarov visiting new mansions at his Agalarov Estate last October.
Agalarov said in the television interview that he would not evict people by force but would try to prevent their houses from spoiling the multimillionaires' views by planting many trees around the estate.

That statement in itself is keeping the villagers up at night. No new trees have been planted yet.

The villagers' pleas are not the only ones that seem to be ignored. Nadezhda Mikhareva, the top official for the Obushkovskoye district, which includes Voronino, asked Agalarov to carry out several development projects in the area, and in his written reply, a copy of which was obtained by The Moscow Times, he promised to build an asphalt road by Aug. 1, 2007. No road has been built yet.

In investigating villagers' complaints, prosecutors determined that Crocus had failed to win permission for construction that was under way on several land plots in and around Voronino. They also found that the building of a dam on the Belyana River for the creation of the artificial lakes had violated construction rules and damaged the river's aquatic life. A criminal case was opened by the local branch of the Interior Ministry in December.

Crocus comprises a number of businesses targeting the superrich, including Crocus Bank, an exclusive yacht club and restaurant, an international exhibition center, the Tvoi Dom shopping center and the Crocus City Mall, which the company's web site says incarnates "Shopping as an Art Form."

The Voronino affair is reminiscent of the high-profile Butovo land dispute two years ago, when Moscow city authorities decided to replace a village 5 kilometers outside the Moscow's ring road with high-rise apartment blocks.

While the villagers were offered compensation for their property, some inhabitants rejected what they deemed to be an inequitable exchange. A one-bedroom apartment in another district was no compensation for the loss of their houses and land. For some, working off the land was the only way to make a living.

City officials filed lawsuits, emerged the winners and sent eviction officers with riot police to break down the fences and doors of the homes. Undaunted, some residents are still living in Butovo, creating an obstacle to what Mayor Yury Luzhkov has called "an affordable housing project."

"We live in a era of what can be termed criminal privatization," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a Moscow City Duma legislator and deputy head of the opposition Yabloko party.

People can easily be evicted from their homes to make way for the construction of new mansions and shopping centers, he said. The "encroacher" can be either a tycoon like Agalarov or the state itself, armed with a land development plan, he said.

As a recent example, Mitrokhin pointed to new legislation drawn up by the Economic Development and Trade Ministry on "special procedures" regarding land expropriations for construction of future Olympic projects. The state needs land to prepare for the Sochi games in 2014. State Duma Deputy Galina Khovanskaya warned last September that the legislation might set a precedent for future land expropriations since the amendments will be incorporated into the federal Land and Housing codes.

Back at Voronino, the villagers say they are tired of fighting and just want to be left in peace. They probably would not be comforted to know that potential homebuyers face a battle of their own convincing Agalarov to sell them a home.

"There are certain rules" to buying a mansion, Agalarov told Britain's The Guardian newspaper in October.

"One potential buyer had an Afghan sheepdog. We don't allow big dogs on this estate. So I wouldn't sell him a house.

"Can you imagine," he said, chuckling. "I lost $30 million because of a dog!"