COMMENT: Construction firm in Russia’s Yekaterinburg hires secret police to get rid of opposition politician

Publish date: February 28, 2011

ST. PETERSBURG – A construction company in the large urban centre of Yekaterinburg, in Russia’s Urals Region, has apparently engaged the help of the Federal Security Service (the FSB) to settle scores with an opposition politician on a crusade to defend the city’s parks and gardens from grabby developers. Everything goes – including overt provocations. This, and other means of intimidation, is sadly becoming par for the course for ecological activists at odds with the authorities in modern Russia.

Maxim Petlin is a member of the Yekaterinburg duma, the city parliament. He is also a member of the oldest Russian liberal opposition party, Yabloko, and heads its local branch in Yekaterinburg. On February 22, he was detained and charged with attempted extortion of money from a local construction developer.

The circumstances of the case are as follows. A construction firm called Forum Group planned to build a shopping mall in place of a small park on Ulitsa Repina in Yekaterinburg. The mayor’s office sanctioned the felling of over 1,100 trees and bushes in the park, and locals, led by Petlin, staged pickets trying to hamper the clear-cutting – and succeeding on more than one occasion. An offer then followed from representatives of the construction firm to sign an agreement with local residents whereby they promised to halt the felling and hold a public hearing on the issue. Petlin, in a show of good faith, agreed to cease the public protests until the negotiations were over.

On February 22, the agreement was signed. As per the deal, Petlin was to hand copies of his complaints to local prosecutors over to the construction firm. The papers were delivered to Forum Group’s offices by Petlin’s former assistant, a local activist named Andrei Panteleyev. During the meeting, a representative of the construction firm gave a package to Panteleyev saying there were papers in it for Petlin. The minute Panteleyev put his hands on the package, the door opened and FSB officers entered the room and proceeded to arrest the activist.

The contents of the package revealed RUR 1.5 million ($51,800) dusted with special powder – evidence in a future case to prove the money was intended to be delivered to Petlin as a bribe. Representatives of the construction firm claim Petlin was “extorting” money from them to a total amount of RUR 3 million ($103,600).

A court hearing on February 24 resulted in a “released under own recognisance” ruling, with a group of city and regional parliament members vouching for Petlin’s appearance for further proceedings. The prosecution, arguing Petlin had committed an attempt at “extortion for the purpose of taking possession of especially large property not in one’s ownership,” asked that the court remand Petlin without bail. The crime prosecutors charged him with carries a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

Yekaterinburg Yabloko politicians and public activists believe what happened was a provocation. Yabloko’s national leader, Sergei Mitrokhin, said “the FSB most likely received a bribe from the developer company to arrange the provocation.”

Petlin is a well-known public figure in Yekaterinburg, a leading voice in public opinion reputed for his vigorous efforts to oppose rampant urban infill – a practice where land already within a built-up area is reclaimed for further construction. In Russia, that often happens at the detriment of a city’s green zones.  

The situation that apparently led to Petlin’s arrest has been the city’s “hot spot” for a number of months now. The mall slated to appear in place of a razed park on Ulitsa Repina is planned to be an entire “retail park” – a giant shopping centre with shops and open-air amusement rides.

Last January, Petlin wrote to city and regional prosecutors, as well as regional governor Alexander Misharin and the presidential plenipotentiary envoy in the Urals, Nikolai Vinnichenko, with requests to look into what was referred to as illegal felling of almost five hectares of forest on a territory that is popular with the local population as a recreation area. The project developer had reportedly committed grave violations of the law as it had set about clear-cutting the forest. Furthermore, the works are said to have been conducted with violations of sanitary and safety norms and in absence of felling licenses or a felling plan.

An examination of the architectural design and project documentation showed that no less than 20 hectares of land was planned to be reclaimed for the construction instead of the 4.8 hectares that the developer had permission to use. Yekaterinburg Yabloko set an ultimatum before the developer company demanding that the firm cease all felling works and start talking with the public to adjust the project to the public’s demands.

Petlin received a reply from the city administration saying the company behind the mall project – Torgovy Tsentr (Shopping Mall) – had compensated the city budget with the necessary amount to cover the damage done by felling the pine forest, which is why, the letter said, the act of clear-cutting on the given territory was not in violation of the law. The information said the compensatory amount for the 1,161 pines felled was RUR 324,000 ($11,180) – or a meagre RUR 280 ($9.7) per one tree. The price that would be considered proper in this case – as made known by the City Duma’s Commission for City Economy – is between RUR 30,000 and RUR 35,000 ($1,036 to $1,209).

Petlin’s history as an organiser of public protests is one that was bound to rub somebody the wrong way.

In December 2010, Yabloko activists and Petlin held a public action protesting against cutting down fir-trees – a big business on New Year’s eve – and calling on the city’s residents to abstain from cutting fir-trees in the local forests for their New Year celebrations and to buy, instead, artificial ones or those specially grown for sale.

Earlier, in November 2010, Yekaterinburg-based Yabloko had picketed in support of Khimki ecological activist Konstantin Fetisov, as well as Mikhail Beketov and Oleg Kashin, the two Moscow-based journalists whose severe beatings made headlines all over the world and riveted the international community’s attention to the dangers faced by independent journalists in Russia.

And in December 2010, Yabloko activists led by Petlin had joined residents of Southwest Yekaterinburg to break a fence around a park in that city district and open the park for public access. An area in the park had stood enclosed in an illegally raised construction fence for three years, even though an arbitration court had ruled the decision to allocate that plot of land for construction as against the law and decreed that the land must be returned to the city.

Still, neither the administration nor the developer, Nash Dom (Our Home), hurried to comply with the ruling – prompting local politicians and residents to take justice in their own hands. The section of the fence that crossed the park, cutting it into an abandoned construction site and the rest of the territory, was successfully taken down in just under an hour and a half. What local residents witnessed was a sorry picture of a slain park: Felled trees, weeds invading the grounds, and trash sprawling across the whole area. A foundation pit dug by the builders on the site had a pipe burst inside and a dirty pool formed as a result. Participants of the action used planks from the dismantled section of the construction fence to build one around the pit.

Another anti-infill action had also been held by Petlin earlier, on August 5. Locals covered a construction fence with drawings and a petition to city mayor Arkady Chernetsky, demanding that the authorities take down the fence by August 12 – lest the citizens do it themselves. The city administration responded by painting the fence over.

And in April 2010, Petlin and Yabloko members had organised a rally against the city’s development policy with clear demands to stop infill construction and felling the city’s parks and gardens for profit. The protesters also demanded Mayor Chernetsky’s resignation.

With such a rich record of opposition politics, it stands to reason that Petlin’s activities were a sorely uncomfortable nuisance to city authorities, who may have finally moved to settle the score.

One hope lies with how the court proceedings have been developing so far. On February 24, as the court ruled to release Petlin before further hearings, prosecution also asked to rule illegal the city administration’s decision to permit the felling of the forest at the site of Forum Group’s future construction. There may still be a sharp turn in the case for those behind the frame-up.

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