Builder Clashes With Middle Class Owners

MTBulldozers dug up the only road leading to the homes of Gryaznov and his neighbors and put up a barbed wire barrier.
"Real estate in Kurkino: an urban dream," asserts the web site of FinansStroiInvest, a developer offering luxury mansions in the city's northwestern district.

But for Mikhail Gryaznov and his neighbors on Yurovskaya Ulitsa, living opposite the company's turret-topped manors has turned into a veritable nightmare.

Gryaznov and at least five fellow residents are now locked in battle with the company, which they accuse of carrying out a raider attack to bully them off their property and snap it up for a song. FinansStroiInvest, meanwhile, says the homeowners are merely suffering the consequences of having built their own houses without proper permission.

While the term "raiding" in contemporary Russia typically refers to an illegal takeover of a business using an array of nefarious tactics, private homeowners have also claimed to be victims of raider attacks.

Property rights activists say it is relatively simple for the government or companies flush with cash to clear people from their homes to make way for the construction of new mansions and shopping centers.

But while there have been several cases in recent years of poorer Moscow residents being evicted in favor of large real estate project, the Kurkino situation shows how even more prosperous residents can run into difficulties associated with the high demand for prime property.

The Kurkino dispute turned ugly last month when bulldozers dug up the only road leading to the homes of Gryaznov and his neighbors. Construction workers protected by armed guards proceeded to put up a fence topped with razor wire.

To get to their house, Gryaznov, 61, and his wife Svetlana, who both have walking disabilities, must now squeeze past prickly fir trees on a narrow lawn sandwiched between a tall brick wall and the razor-wire fence and cross two neighboring front yards by climbing through holes in fences.

"Look how they guard us — just like in prison," Gryaznov, a retired physicist, said as he watched two armed guards sitting in front of the house opposite his blocked driveway.

Jess Bratton, an accredited diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, lives with his family next to Gryaznov and consequently has one more lawn to cross to get home. When the bulldozers came, he managed to block them for 22 days with his diplomatic cars, neighbors said.

Bratton himself could not comment for this report because he was not authorized to speak to the media on issues not connected to his work.

"They want our land for cheap to resell it at a high price," said businessman Aram Kochyan, whose house stands at the beginning of the destroyed road. "This is a clear act of raiding."

The view Gryaznov and his neighbors have from the balconies of their high-end homes is breathtaking. Overlooking the lush Skhodnya river valley, only one or two high-rise buildings on the distant horizon spoil the landscape of pristine wood and grassland.

"But with no proper access, my property is worthless," Gryaznov sighed. The residents claim accessing their homes is only possible via the destroyed road.

Gryaznov claims that FinansStroiInvest had actually revealed to one of his neighbors, Alexander Belov, its intention to make life difficult for the residents. "They told [Belov] they want us to sell so that they can grab the most valuable land," he said.

Belov, who owned two houses and had residual obligations on two others on the street, killed himself last month. His neighbors say his suicide was connected to the dispute. "He just felt terrorized by the situation," Gryaznov said.

But Maria Timofeyevskaya, a lawyer for FinansStroiInvest, was adamant that the homeowners themselves were to blame for their difficult situation.

"They built houses without proper planning for access roads. This was done in violation of Russian law. Their buildings are illegal. That is why they are encountering these problems," Timofeyevskaya said.

The homeowners dismissed Timofeyevskaya's arguments. "We were here first. We were given police addresses by authorities. How can they say we built illegally?" Kochyan said.

Yet, last month, the homeowners lost a claim for a right of way, or easement, on the destroyed road. A local district court issued a similar ruling in a complaint filed by Gryaznov personally.

The mess, Gryaznov said, emerged after city planning authorities blundered in dividing the land, which remains state property under long-term leases.

According to Gryaznov, they got the leases for roughly 1,700 square meters of land each as creditors of a bank that folded after the 1998 crash.

The homeowners all went through the bureaucratic process of registering the property, Gryaznov said, showing a reporter his lease and ownership papers for his spacious two-story house.

The access issue only came up in 2002, when FinansStroiInvest bought the remaining lease for more than 15 acres, Gryaznov said. The land leased by the company included the existing access road to the residents' homes.

When city authorities told the homeowners to sort the situation out with the company, they began negotiations immediately in 2002, Gryaznov said. Agreements were reached with the company to transfer land from FinansStroiInvest to each landlord, Gryaznov said.

"We even built the road together," he said.

But last year FinansStroiInvest changed its mind, Gryaznov said. "They suddenly refused to register the agreements," he said.

The company has proposed that the residents build another road, something they say they cannot do because of underground sewage mains and the threat of disrupting the local ecology.

FinansStroiInvest general manager Mikhail Polezhayev, meanwhile, said the company feels betrayed.

"These people presented themselves as innocent victims, but it turned out they had willfully made these distortions," Polezhayev said. "They had no documents proving surveyors' errors were why they had to use our territory.

"If someone is in a difficult situation, the first instinct is to help," Polezhayev said. "But when you realize that you are being cheated, you lose that instinct."

He added that FinansStroiInvest had proposed planning the road on middle ground between both sides' plots.

But Gryaznov said FinansStroiInvest's offer was unfair. "The so-called compromise involved us destroying the road and our brick wall and rebuilding the road on our property," he said.

The residents are now suing FinansStroiInvest for breach of contract and requesting that police and prosecutors investigate the firm for possible violations of the residents' property and human rights, Gryaznov said.