DOMODEDOVO - I first met with the leaders of this town's independence movement in a small Azeri cafe.
Domodedovo is barely a town, really, more like just a street; and when I arrived, there was a Muscovite photographer obviously on the same story. We were waiting for the members of the independence movement led by human rights lawyer Evgenii Arkhipov.
The group wants the town of Domodedovo, which includes Moscow’s Domodedovo airport -- the largest airport in Russia -- to secede, and form the Russian Democratic Republic. The story about the national independence of Domodedovo sounds like a joke. But the best jokes come from the most tragic material, and this story says much about shifting power in modern Russia.
When the leaders of the movement finally arrived, we left the cafe and headed to an empty playground, where Valeri Tsatuyov, one of the group’s leaders, pulled the new country’s flag out of the trunk of his Toyota 4x4. The flag is red and black, with a white symbol in the middle. The symbol was used by Russian princes during their wars against the Mongols.
Arkhipov explained that the airport would not be nationalized by the new country, but instead would pay taxes, “for the benefit of all the citizens of the Republic!”
I asked how many people had already voted for the new country. “There are fifty people in the leadership group,” said Arkhipov. “And we have already gathered around 500 signatures. But when we started collecting signatures, it turned out that everyone supported us right away. So we stopped, because there’s no sense in continuing. Our activists have more important things to do.”
And how would they set up the new country politically?
It will be a parliamentary republic, Arkhipov said. It will be an autonomous republic within the Russian Federation, but with a special status. The important thing is that the Russian people will be able to choose their own government, police and civil servants, which will all be free from corruption. They will likewise be free from control by the oligarchs, the mafia and the land-snatchers that are developing Domodedovo’s fields and forests.
When prodded about his emphasis on ethnic Russians, Arkhipov, who was wearing a traditional Russian peasant shirt, said, “We’re not against non-Russians. We want to join Europe; to be part of the civilized world. But 95% of the population here is ethnic Russian. And everything that is happening around us is against the interests of Russians -- only the oligarchs and bandits have their interests served.”
“But aren’t the oligarchs and bandits just as Russian as you?” I asked.
“They are working for other interests,” he responded.
An Olympian weight
The pressure has been building here since 2007, when 98% of the local population voted against the construction of a toll-road nearby and the widening of the existing alternate route that goes right through town.
The new route, it was said, was needed for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. But because the new road is a toll road, most of the commercial trucks take the alternate route, increasing traffic enormously on the narrow road that is lined with homes.
When the government sent bulldozers into the village in September 2009, they fenced off large parts of the town and tried to do away with the playground where the separatists had taken us. According to Arkhipov, there was a real threat of forced seizure and demolition of both the playground and private homes.
In spite of his activities as the head of the Domodedovo independent movement, Arkhipov is anything but crazy. He admits that the goal is really to get the government’s attention, and he knows what he’s talking about. Forced demolitions and government land seizures have reached epidemic proportions both in Sochi and in Eastern Russia near Vladivostock ahead of the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit that took place there recently.
Government employees have diverse ways of enriching themselves while stealing peoples’ land, including hiring thugs to force people to sell their property at 10 times below the market rate and then turning the property around and selling it to the government for three times the market rate.
When the attempts to forcibly widen the road though Domodedovo started in 2009, the villagers banded together and ran out the construction workers. The government did not let up pressure, and human rights activists started submitting complaints to international organizations. It got to the point where foreign leaders, including former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, were trying to bring up human rights issues, including the situation in Domodedovo, with the Russian government.
In Domodedovo, there is also a nationalist aspect to the secession: one of the town’s main developers is related to the President of Azerbaijan. According to at least one resident, the Azeri diaspora has been putting pressure on residents with property near the road, through threats, harassment and bribes.
There is a new tendency in Russia for people who are rich, influential or simply criminal, to seize property in complete defiance of existing laws. One resident in Domodedovo said, “They are trying to make us feel unwelcome on our own land.” But it is happening not just in the areas around Moscow -- particularly the prestigious areas, where outsiders can’t even get through because of the fences -- but all over Russia. There have been investigations of illegal land seizures around the Black Sea, but so far no law enforcement organization has taken interest.
The country has been breaking up for some time now. Separatism is not only happening in places like Chechnya and Ingushetia, Dagestan and Domodedovo. It has spread across all of Russia. Russia has divided into “have nothings” and people who have plenty and want even more. The problem is that the “have nothings” are much more numerous, and they are being oppressed.
Right now, it seems laughable that activists in this small airport village are declaring their independence. Just as funny as Marxist activists looked at the beginning of the last century. Just as ridiculous as the activists during Perestroika, saying “Give us a free market and democracy!” That was the slogan that started the collapse of the Soviet Union, which President Vladimir Putin has romantically called the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of his time.
It is possible that the recent clowning in Domodedovo will become the start of an even larger catastrophe. And then we'll see who's laughing.