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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Moscow's rampant property scams
Lucy Ash
By Lucy Ash
BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents

Elderly woman eating soup
Thousands of vulnerable people have lost their homes

In Moscow property prices are rising by 40% a year and construction work is everywhere. But there is a dark side to the property boom involving fraud, violence, and even murder.

Gennady Gavrilov once lived in a flat in one of the more sought after neighbourhoods of Moscow.

But the former metal worker suddenly found himself homeless and penniless. He was dumped in a provincial town 150 miles away, where he was forced to sleep with animals in a barn and had to work for food.

Gennady is one of thousands of victims of Russia's housing scams. Property related crime is rampant, more than a decade after people were first offered the chance to privatise their homes after the collapse of Communism.

When I woke up I was in Vyasma - a town I had never been to in my life - surrounded by a bunch of tough looking strangers
Gennady Gavrilov

A sharp increase in the cost of living has often forced poorer Muscovites to sell their flats and move into something smaller, further out of town.

But many - especially pensioners - are confused by the paperwork. And a single signature gives dealers power of attorney to privatise and sell a state flat.

Gennady's nightmare began when he was contacted by a man who offered him the chance to sell books on the Moscow metro.

"I had no idea how he got my phone number, but he came around the next day with a few friends to show me the books.

"Then we started drinking vodka," said Gennady. "When I woke up I was in Vyasma - a town I had never been to in my life - surrounded by a bunch of tough looking strangers.

"They wanted to buy my apartment and said they would find me a nice house instead. I did not dare refuse. They were not the sort of guys you argue with."

Big business

The "nice house" turned out to be a burned down shack; and Gennady received no money for his flat.

Moscow Lawyer Igor Trunov
Several of the owners of these flats had just disappeared without trace
Moscow Lawyer Igor Trunov
Accomplices of the men who brought him to Vyasma then held him as a virtual slave for five years.

Eventually a local businessman heard about his plight and hired Moscow Lawyer Igor Trunov to help him recover his property.

When Mr Trunov investigated local housing records, he was shocked to discover that more than 120 flats had been re-registered in the same person's name.

"Several of the owners of these flats had just disappeared without trace, " he said.

"We suspect there were murders because a number of bodies of former owners were found.

"It so happens that all of these victims had died in suspicious circumstances. But the police did not bother to make any links between any of these seemingly unconnected incidents."

A criminal investigation is now underway but it only started last year after Mr Trunov won the civil case, proving that Gennady had been cheated out of his flat.

Death threats

However, Gennady did not get his old home back.

Sasha, the Vyasma businessman who paid the legal fees, had a vested interest in the affair. He kept the Moscow flat while Gennady was found a cheaper house in Vyasma.

If those guys had wanted to get rid of me, nobody would have noticed

But Gennady is still grateful.

"I was living on my own after my parents died and no one came looking for me when I left my flat. One day I was there, the next day I had vanished.

"If those guys had wanted to get rid of me, nobody would have noticed."

Perhaps Gennady is lucky to be alive. Three months ago a group of former police officers were convicted of fraud, extortion and the killing of two Muscovites to seize their apartments.

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents was broadcast on Thursday, 24 June, 2004 at 1100 BST

Investigators believe this is just the tip of the iceberg. They have found the bodies of 20 more suspected victims buried in woodlands outside the city, and believe this gang could be responsible for anywhere up to 100 murders.

Valentina Kuznetsova works at a soup kitchen for the homeless in the south east of Moscow.

She has heard countless stories about vulnerable people being conned out of their flats.

"The gangs who grab their property threaten to kill them if they show their faces again so they try to hide here around the railway station.

"They sleep in abandoned carriages or in the station toilets. And what else can they do? They do not have the money to go to court."

Property laundering

Even if such cases are prosecuted, there is no guarantee courts will be objective.

Three federally appointed judges are about to go on trial themselves after they were charged with helping to register dozens of fake relatives as flat owners in another housing racket.

Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin
The idea of the law was to protect innocent people who acquired private property
Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin

A year ago the Constitutional Court passed a new ruling to protect people who unknowingly purchased properties that had been seized in this way.

But according to Russia's Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, the new law has created a new problem, legally sanctioned criminal appropriation.

"The idea of the law was to protect innocent people who acquired private property but the problem is that it is very useful for criminals.

"They illegally take a building and resell it twice or three times to a false company invented by themselves, and by the third or fourth time they sell it to a more or less honest person because it all looks fine on paper."

Insider dealing

Although ordinary flats are still targeted, the trade has now moved on to more lucrative prizes such as buildings given by the government in the early 90s to institutes, academies, and media organisations like Novaye Vremya, a Moscow magazine.

One afternoon in February, a group of armed men forced their way into the magazine offices and frogmarched the journalists down the fire escape.

Editor of Novaye Vremya Alexander Pumpyanskiy
There will be no law and order here if this practice is accepted
Magazine Editor Alexander Pumpianksy

Magazine Editor Alexander Pumpianksy - a veteran journalist who made his name in the glasnost era - was stunned.

"They showed me a document which stated that the building had been sold to a firm called Koncept. But we knew nothing about this and we had never heard of such a company."

He was confident the building in Pushkin Square belonged to the magazine. But it emerged that in 2003 when he was out of the country, the magazine's finance director secretly allowed for it to be privatised.

The building was bought by one company, and then sold on to another for less than a tenth of its true commercial value.

Now, the building is under reconstruction and all its windows are boarded up.

Mr Pumpianksy is so determined to get his building back, he has even found a sympathetic bank to pay his legal costs. He told the programme:

"This kind of robbery is a real business in our country these days... And there will be no law and order here if this practice is accepted."

BBC Radio 4's Crossing Continents, Crossing Europe was broadcast on Thursday, 24 June, 2004 at 1100 BST.

The programme was repeated on Monday, 28 June, 2004 at 2030 BST.

Crossing Continents


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