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Dacha Construction Boom in Russia Taking Toll on Environment

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, prosperous Russians have been grabbing choice real estate in and around Moscow to build country homes - or dachas in Russian.

Workers, backed by riot police, recently stormed a cluster of dachas, or cottages, built without proper authorization on the edge of an artificial lake northwest of Moscow. It is the first such demolition action of its kind in Russia, where escaping from cities to the country for the weekend or holidays is a national obsession.

State television broadcast footage of police climbing over a high wall surrounding the 13 wooden homes in an environmentally protected area outside Moscow. The police then descended on one cottage and tore it down as angry occupants and neighboring residents cried out in protest.

A court bailiff is later heard telling the people that the workers and police were simply carrying out a court order.

The cottages in question, like countless others in Moscow and surrounding regions, were built illegally. The government says the owners did not get the environmental inspection needed to obtain a construction permit.

Mikhail Kreindlin is an expert with the Moscow branch of the international environmental group, Greenpeace. He tells VOA the government may be acting for reasons that have nothing to do with protecting the environment.

Mr. Kreindlin says the Environmental Inspectorate of the Russian Federation has had only limited success so far because, in his words, "they, too, are part of the problem." He says that there may even be ulterior motives behind this particular demolition - with suggestions that the government itself wants the land to build a yacht-club. The inspectorate denies the charges, saying nothing will be built on the land.

The owners of the lost property are challenging the demolition in the Supreme Court.

Anatoly Panfilov, the director of the independent Russian ecological monitoring organization named Cedar, says Russia's environmental protection legislation is inadequate and enforcement virtually non-existent.

Mr. Panfilov also says that it is hard to protect Russia's vast natural riches with a mere 15 inspectors. He says unchecked construction has had a devastating impact on the environment around Russia's capital city.

He says the greatest damage has been exacted on Moscow's drinking water, much of which comes from water reservoirs outside the city where most of the construction is taking place.

Mr. Panfilov says the more polluted the reservoirs become the more chemicals must be used to make the water potable. The added chemicals, he says, increase the health risks for Muscovites.

The forests around Moscow have also been hard hit. Environmentalists estimate that some 10,000 hectares (25,000-acres) surrounding the capital have been sold for residential development.

Environmentalist Kreindlin says the government and public must be made to understand that the dacha building boom is destroying the very environment the people of Moscow seek when they try to escape the pollution of the city.

Alexei Belov, of Moscow Water Channel, the water supply company, says Russians do not see pollution as their problem.

Mr. Belov says far too many people still have the idea that if something belongs to the state, it means it's not their problem or responsibility. He says Moscow Water Channel would like to educate Russians that it is everyone's duty to help take care of the environment.

According to a recent poll, conducted by the All Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies, most Russians believe government authorities are responsible for the environment. The poll also found nearly half of the respondents saying they expected the environment in Russia to continue to deteriorate.

Vladimir Makhnach, a cultural historian, says if the trend continues, it will mean a definite loss in quality of life for millions of Russians.

Mr. Makhnach says at their dachas, Russians retreat to the idyllic family life of taking children to a lake, gardening or picking mushrooms and berries.

But, he says it won't last long if the dacha construction boom continues.