Angry Home Buyers Go on Hunger Strike

MTHome buyers cheated out of their apartments protesting Monday with a hunger strike. The protesters camped out in an unfinished women's center being built by the same firm that defrauded tens of thousands.
Dozens of people stripped of their savings by a fraudulent construction firm went on a hunger strike Monday in an unfinished Garden Ring building.

The hunger strike coincided with a protest that drew 400 to 500 people to the White House. The protest lasted about an hour and ended without incident.

Those at the hunger strike and protest are demanding the federal government compensate them with finished apartments -- which they assumed they were getting when they paid Sotsialnaya Initsiativa for homes that were never built or sold to multiple buyers.

Nikolai Karasyov, former head of Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, was arrested and charged with large-scale fraud in January.

Scores of protests have broken out in Moscow and the surrounding region since summer 2005, when news of the fraud surfaced.

Monday's demonstrations in Moscow were accompanied by similar protests in Voronezh, Novosibirsk, Orenburg and Belgorod. More than 50,000 families nationwide are believed to have been cheated out of apartments.

The hunger strike at an unfinished women's center on the Garden Ring, near the intersection with Tsvetnoi Bulvar, included many who had traveled from Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Smolensk and various towns in the Moscow region. Demonstrators huddled on mats on the second floor of the building. They were armed with bottled water and a television set and said they had brought portable toilets.

Cheering on those inside the women's center was a crowd of 150 to 200 protesters outside the building. The protesters, who had trekked to the center from the White House demonstration, touted banners, chanted and applauded. Police blocked their entrance to the center.

Construction of the women's center had been paid for by a group of small and medium-size businesses. In a deal with city authorities, the group agreed to build the center in exchange for the right to build their own office building next door to the women's center.

Sotsialnaya Initsiativa had been hired by the group to build the whole project -- the office building and the women's center -- but the construction firm ran out of cash last year, said Tatyana Tikhonova, the group's spokeswoman.

The group had paid Sotsialnaya Initsiativa $10 million to build the whole project, Tikhonova said. It is unclear how much more the project was expected to cost.

For now, Tikhonova said, the group's ownership of the unfinished center and office building is under dispute.

The group invited the hunger strike organizers to hold their demonstration at the construction site, Tikhonova said.

Those involved in the hunger strike showed up at the construction site early in the morning Monday, fearing police interference, Tikhonova said. She said police had illegally blocked the entrance to the site, which is guarded by a security firm hired by the business group.

Anastasia Antonycheva, a spokeswoman for the apartment buyers, said 61 people had declared their intent to go on the hunger strike in a letter she planned to send to President Vladimir Putin's administration. An estimated 40 demonstrators were seen at the hunger strike.

The group of protesters rallying outside the center was eventually dispersed by police, who threatened to detain them if they did not leave, Antonycheva said.

Despite Monday's protests, there are only two Sotsialnaya Initsiativa apartment buildings in Moscow that remain unfinished, and all stalled buildings will be completed by 2008, said Alexei Vvedensky, a spokesman for the city department of development and reconstruction.

Monday's events were dwarfed by a May 19 rally outside the White House that drew about 1,000 people. People at the rally set up a tent camp that was stormed by riot police after nightfall.