Demonstrators in Moscow hold photos of journalist Mikhail Beketov last year during a protest against a brutal attack on him for investigating allegations of corruption. President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia's biggest problem is corruption among local officials. But attacks on anti-graft crusaders continue in the country.
Demonstrators in Moscow hold photos of journalist Mikhail Beketov last year during a protest against a brutal attack on him for investigating allegations of corruption. President Dmitry Medvedev says Russia's biggest problem is corruption among local officials. But attacks on anti-graft crusaders continue in the country. Mikhail Metzel/AP
President Dmitry Medvedev has said Russia's biggest problem is that corrupt officials run the country, and he has urged the public to help fight the endemic graft.
But for those who do join the fight, it can be dangerous. In Khimki, a suburb of Moscow, at least three journalists and one civil rights activist have been savagely attacked in the past year.
All the victims have at least one thing in common: They had quarreled with the local mayor and were investigating allegations of corruption in the mayor's office.
Yevgeniya Chirikova is a petite, 38-year-old mother of two young daughters. From her tiny two-room apartment, she has taken on Khimki's mayor and the local governor, a Kremlin ally. It started two years ago.
When she and her husband were walking in their local woods, they noticed red paint slashes on the trees — the kind used to trace a path for clear-cutting timber.
To her horror, she found out that the regional governor and mayor had signed off on a new highway to be built smack through the middle of the Khimki forest. She teamed up with a local journalist, Mikhail Beketov; they discovered that orders for the highway were illegal.
Beketov printed a series of articles about the development plans, and the national press picked up his reports. Then, as he began to investigate the mayor's financial holdings, he was brutally beaten. Chirikova says Beketov now has severe brain damage.
"Once a giant of a guy, he now has the mentality of a child. He can't write. He can't speak. He is partially paralyzed. The lesson is clear: You shouldn't touch such subjects," she says.
When contacted by NPR, local Khimki authorities, including the prosecutor's office, did not respond to questions.
Tom Lasseter/MCT via Reuters
Yevgeniya Chirikova teamed up with Beketov two years ago in an attempt to stop the illegal construction of a highway in a forest in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow. Chirikova has continued to fight Khimki officials, even after Beketov was severely beaten.
Yevgeniya Chirikova teamed up with Beketov two years ago in an attempt to stop the illegal construction of a highway in a forest in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow. Chirikova has continued to fight Khimki officials, even after Beketov was severely beaten. Tom Lasseter/MCT via Reuters
Albert Pchelintsev heads the Khimki branch of a nongovernmental organization called the Movement Against Corruption. The group has been looking into the exorbitant cost of new highways in Russia: $237 million per kilometer, compared to $6 million in the United States and Europe. This summer, he was pushing for an investigation into whether city officials profit from land development when he, too, was attacked.
"Someone knocked me down, forced an air gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger. The doctor says I probably would have died had I not jerked my head. Instead of going into my brain, the bullet shattered my jaw," Pchelintsev says.
According to friends, the activist received a phone call in his hospital room from a national representative of United Russia, the country's ruling party, warning him not to talk about the attack.
Pchelintsev says he is scared. Until now, he had not spoken to the press. And now, he flip-flops: One minute, he insists the attack was by a common criminal; then he acknowledges it may well have been because of his work.
His case is the only one in which police have successfully detained a suspect. However, the one witness to the shooting has since recanted his testimony. Pchelintsev says the witness told him he had been threatened.
But Pchelintsev does plan to continue to work. He is encouraged by a law pushed by Medvedev that obliges the authorities to follow up on corruption charges raised by the public.
"In the past, officials didn't listen to us. But recently there was a roundtable with top officials, and I was invited. They said they had dramatically increased the number of corruption cases they were investigating," he says.
Konstantin Fetisov, Pchelintsev's assistant, is not as optimistic. Until recently, their group's office had been a convenient storefront where people could report government shakedowns — just what Medvedev has advocated. But their landlord recently refused to extend the lease because of threats from local officials.
"In other regions, we have opened up some kind of dialogue with officials, but here in Khimki, they refuse to work with us. They have locked us out — and worse," Fetisov says.
Chirikova, the woman fighting for the Khimki forest, initially had no idea what she was getting into. But even now, she says, she won't be frightened off.
"This is a critical moment," she says. "If we are quiet and show that we are scared, we will lose everything."