Violence and corruption shake a Moscow suburb

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 18, 2009 

KHIMKI, Russia — During the summer of 2007, Yevgeniya Chirikova and her husband were strolling through the woods when they noticed a series of red paint marks on the trees around them, the sort used to trace a path for clear-cutting timber.

Chirikova went home, got on the Internet and found a document signed by the regional governor that said a new highway would be built through the Khimki forest. Incensed, the mother of two wrote letters to politicians. When she didn't hear back, she met with a journalist and began distributing fliers asking her neighbors to get involved.

It sounds like a feel-good story about how a plucky woman in her early 30s starts a grass-roots movement with an infant daughter strapped to her chest.

This, however, is Russia. After the journalist, Mikhail Beketov, printed a series of articles about the development plans, he was beaten to a bloody pulp last November. The assailants crushed his skull, probably with baseball bats or metal rods. He survived, after part of a leg and several fingers were amputated.

The attack was startling for more than just the brutal details: It didn't happen in some dark corner of a troubled region such as Chechnya, but on Moscow's doorstep. Khimki is on the way to one of the capital's main international airports and is home to big-box retailer outlets IKEA and the French grocery chain Auchan.

Nonetheless, at least three journalists and one civic rights activist have been savagely beaten in Khimki since last year.

The chain of attacks shows the depth of Russia's vast corruption problems and suggests that despite promises from Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to "overcome legal nihilism," many of those who are thought to be behind dirty business and political deals trace the roots of their power to the government itself.

As a result, the Kremlin's system of vertical governance — installing or helping to elect leaders who are allowed to skim cash or embezzle as long as they're loyal to their Moscow political bosses — risks growing alienation of residents in places such as Khimki.

The victims in Khimki have at least one thing in common: They quarreled with the administration of Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, who reportedly enjoys strong support from the local governor, Boris Gromov, a Kremlin ally.

Opposition groups have accused Strelchenko's government and its allies of getting rich through corruption that ranges from shakedowns of business owners to demanding a cut of construction jobs.

Those allegations were aired in public during late 2004, when IKEA officials said that area leaders were blocking the opening of their multimillion-dollar retail site on the main airport road in Khimki.

One Moscow newspaper wrote: "It appears the company's refusal to pay bribes resulted in a delay."

There's suspicion that the mayor or those around him have ordered, or at least tolerated, hits carried out on people who publicly questioned their way of doing business.

"They do not discuss things legally, they use criminal methods. First they threaten, and if a guy does not fulfill his orders, he is attacked physically," said Konstantin Fetisov, a former head of ex-President Vladimir Putin's Khimki liaison office who's now a regional coordinator of an anti-corruption activist group, the Movement Against Corruption, Lies and Dishonor.

In the days before his beating, the journalist Beketov reportedly was working on a story about the financial holdings of Strelchenko's family.

Beketov "had many warnings, it was no secret: He was warned on the phone, he was warned in person," said Lyudmila Selina, a librarian who's part of a group that's trying to stop a city-backed apartment development near her home. Selina, a Khimki resident of 46 years, said the door of her home was set on fire shortly after she asked one of Strelchenko's deputies a question that implied city officials steal public funds.

Neither the mayor nor the governor responded to requests for interviews.

"In Chicago you had these gangland wars, but not here in Khimki, because here the gangsters and the authorities are the same thing," said Anatoly Yurov, a newspaper editor who was stabbed 10 times last year, including in the face and neck.

His disagreements with the mayor began shortly after the 2003 elections, Yurov said, when Strelchenko demanded that members of a trade group Yurov heads funnel money through the editor to the mayor's office. To Yurov, it sounded like a mafia patronage system.

"He said vaguely that it was to fund events," said Yurov, who's been assaulted three times since 2006. "To me it sounded like I had to rob my members."

It's hard to know what police have done to investigate the attacks on Yurov, Beketov or others; the best guess is not much.

When he was asked for an interview, the head of Khimki's police investigations bureau declined. "To tell the truth, I hate journalists," the officer, Sergei Glushenkov, explained over the phone. He added that: "You don't understand one thing. Foreigners will never understand us. We Russians, we have our own Russian mentality. I will tell my people not to meet you."

The head of the city's prosecutor's office, Mikhail Sobolev, also refused to talk.

Those who've crossed Strelchenko are often people who say they never expected to find themselves in opposition to the city government. Yurov, for example, was a municipal official in Khimki during the Soviet days.

Another Strelchenko critic, Georgi Vartanov, is the son and grandson of career Soviet army officers. He spent a decade working for the Russian border guards under the KGB, the Soviet-era secret police. Now he works as a researcher for the Movement Against Corruption, Lies and Dishonor, whose Khimki office has photos of President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin hanging on the wall.

Vartanov said his journey to the opposition began after Strelchenko came to power and local law enforcement raided his group of small businesses — a grocery, a nightclub and a hair salon. The businesses' corporate documents were seized and then changed, and Vartanov was coerced into giving up ownership after more than a decade of work — to people connected with the government, he said.

Last month, a group of men grabbed the regional head of Vartanov's group and, on a city street in broad daylight, shoved a pellet gun in his mouth and shot him.

The victim, Albert Pchelintsev, is still in the hospital with a crushed lower jaw and cracked skull, according to colleagues. Pchelintsev had been pushing for an investigation of whether city officials profit personally from land development.

"Over the past year he had several threats. People said that if he did not shut his mouth someone would shut him up," said Fetisov, who as the group's regional coordinator works under Pchelintsev.

Those who were making the threats included at least one city official, Fetisov said.

After the incident, Pchelintsev received a phone call in his hospital room from a national representative of United Russia, the country's ruling party.

"They spoke rather vaguely, but the message was don't make too much noise about it," Fetisov said.

As for Chirikova, the woman who called Beketov about the forest getting cut down, she ran for mayor earlier this year but said that harassment from the election commission and then lawsuits by another candidate all but blocked her campaign.

Asked what she's learned during the past two-plus years, Chirikova, a slightly built woman with blond hair, looked glum.

"They kill the best, those who pose a threat to them," Chirikova said. "The people begin trying to fight for their rights, and end up trying to fight for their lives."

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