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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Defrauded Buyers Gear Up to Protest

MTHome buyers signing letters near an unfinished women's center Tuesday.
About 150 home buyers defrauded of their apartments collected signatures in central Moscow as they tried to put pressure on the government ahead of what they hope will be a nationwide hunger strike.

An initial 20 home buyers are to go on hunger strike on Wednesday, and the protest is to spread to Ulyanovsk, Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh, Smolensk and Samara on Thursday as several hundred of the other 200,000 defrauded home buyers join in.

While the protest is small for now, it could pose a new headache for a government already grappling with growing public discontent over a poorly implemented program to distribute free medication. A potentially large protest is the last thing the Kremlin wants going into parliamentary elections later this year and the presidential vote in March. It has its hands full with a series of recent opposition protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Nizhny Novgorod that were violently suppressed by OMON riot police.

The defrauded home buyers staged a similar hunger strike for nine days in September but called it off after several State Duma deputies and a Public Chamber member promised to resolve the matter.

Boris Kosarev, head of the Co-Investors Defrauded Alliance, which is organizing the strike, said Tuesday that four months had passed and nothing had been resolved.

"We do not see any other way but to continue our hunger strike," he said.

The strike will be held in a vacant office provided by a sympathetic supporter at 4 Skhodnensky Tupik, near the Skhodnenskaya metro station, Kosarev said. He refused to identify the supporter.

Protesters on Tuesday gathered outside an unfinished women's center near the corner of Tsvetnoi Bulvar and the Garden Ring to sign letters of support for the hunger strikers. Some wore white T-shirts with the words "We demand that Putin's orders be implemented!"

They said President Vladimir Putin backed them, but that bureaucrats were failing to follow through on his orders.

Forty people went on hunger strike in the women's center in September.

"We planned to have a hunger strike here as we did in September, but police and OMON have been guarding the building since April 16," Kosarev said.

About 30 police officers were standing outside the building Tuesday.

The construction company that defrauded most of the buyers was Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, which also failed to finish building the women's center and an office building next door.

"I bought 50 square meters in this building for my business, and I can't get them. It's not only Sotsialnaya Initsiativa's fault but Moscow authorities as well," said Maxim Khirvo, a businessman at Tuesday's protest.

He said city officials must have known about the fraud because the construction was monitored -- as required by city regulations -- by the City Hall department responsible for construction.

A woman who picked up the phone at City Hall's press service referred all questions to Mayor Yury Luzhkov's spokesman, Sergei Tsoi. Calls to Tsoi were not answered immediately.

A Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said he was unaware of the planned hunger strike and could not comment.

The former head of Sotsialnaya Initsiativa, Nikolai Karasyov, was arrested and charged with fraud in January 2006.

Many protests have broken out in Moscow and the surrounding region since summer 2005, when news of the fraud surfaced. Protesters also set up a camp near the White House on May 19, but OMON riot police tore it down.

Carine Clement, a representative of a United Nations' group that deals with forced evictions, attended Tuesday's protest. She said a hunger strike was not the best way to solve problems but acknowledged that the home buyers had little chance of being heard otherwise.

"They camped next to the White House last May, and the OMON destroyed the camp," Clement said.

She promised that protesters' plight would be heard by the UN's International Advisory Group on Forced Evictions.

More than 200,000 people nationwide are believed to have paid Sotsialnaya Initsiativa and other companies for homes that were never built or that were sold to multiple buyers.

Most of Tuesday's protesters appeared to be 30 to 40 years old, but a few elderly people also attended, and they had tears in their eyes. Yaroslav Druzhinin, 68, said he had sold apartments belonging to himself and his wife on Sakhalin Island to buy an apartment in the Moscow regional town of Balashikha from two companies, Promkomstroi and Astrea, in 2003. When he and 38 other families tried to move in 2005, they discovered that their apartments had been sold to other families.

"Our whole life is destroyed. We had dreamed of peaceful retirement years after working hard all our lives, and now we are homeless -- just like any drunkard at Kursky Station," Druzhinin said.

Albina Sevostyanova, 38, said she also was the victim of a double sale in the Balashikha building. "I have to pay all the money that I make now on rent for an apartment, and I have two children. There is no way out because I sold my house," she said.

Other protesters shared stories of having invested in firms after local authorities endorsed them. Many blamed local officials as much as the construction firms for their woes.

"They acted together and they let them cheat people, and now they just give us false promises," said Raisa Kuznetsova, 55, whose husband will take a part in the hunger strike.