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#12 - JRL 7257
The Observer (UK)
July 20, 2003
'Gorbachev's dachas' upset Russian Greens
Building plan endangered forest land
Nick Paton Walsh in Moscow

Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet President turned leading environmental campaigner, has infuriated ecologists by seeking permission to build luxury cottages on 110 acres of protected green-belt forest outside Moscow. Four months ago, Gorbachev visited the Moscow City Woods Directorate to request permission to build dachas - luxury country houses cherished by Russia's rich - on land at Krasnogorsk, just outside the city limits, according to senior officials.

'The Gorbachev Fund has asked for several dozen acres, 12 kilometres from Moscow,' said Viktor Novikov, deputy head of the Moscow City Woods Directorate. 'We refused, and a special decision of the government will be needed to build there. I don't know what the Prime Minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, will decide.'

A spokesman for the Gorbachev Fund, Vladimir Polyakov, insisted the request had been dropped once its ecological impact had been revealed. 'The question is closed,' he said.

Gorbachev has, since his defining role in bringing the Soviet Union to an end, become a leading light in the environmental movement in Russia. President of the group, the Green Cross, he wrote in its last newsletter of the 'horrendous state and exploitation of the world's natural water sources' - the very reservoirs and lakes that Russia's dacha complexes can contaminate. He also heads the Gorbachev Fund, a Moscow-based think-tank, that made the request to build on protected land.

Fellow environmentalists expressed dismay at a leading campaigner making a request so clearly against the values of his public persona. Vladimir Chuprov of Greenpeace Russia said: 'There is only one word to describe the actions of a person who with one hand pretends to protect the environment, but with the other plans to destroy it. That is hypocrisy - even if this person is the ex-President.'

Gorbachev's request puts him uncomfortably close to the hoards of Russian businessmen and influential people who have laid waste to the delicate ecology of forests around Moscow. Last week Greenpeace released a report detailing the huge toll that dacha building has taken on the city's 'green lungs'.

The Russian Land Code permits building on woods near the town only in 'exceptional cases'. Greenpeace says 30 square km of woodland has been built on in recent years, but that exact figures are impossible to come by.

Guslyana Kortyushova, a lawyer for Greenpeace's Russian branch, said: 'The Ministry for Natural Resources says under 500 acres of woods have been given up for dachas around Moscow over the last 10 years. But a quick glance at the countryside will make you multiply this figure 10 or a hundred times. The laws are violated everywhere.'

She says one advert offers 'a precious house that awaits you under ancient pines, a few metres from the River Moscow, equipped with a garage and ample parking'. Yet it is illegal to build under ancient pines, within 100 metres of a river or to provide access for cars to river areas.

The dachas are renowned for displaying the excesses of Russia's hyper-rich, men such as Roman Abramovich who bought a controlling stake in Chelsea Football Club this month for 140 million. A 300 square metre country house in Podushkino town, 14km from central Moscow, will set you back 1m. Jacuzzis, private tennis courts and gyms are regular fare, and helipads are not uncommon.

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