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Construction on the shore of Makhachkala’s Ak-Gyol Lake by local authorities and private entrepreneurs has been going on for years, to the chagrin of many locals. The fight against the latest such construction, an Orthodox Christian cathedral, has been taken on by local Christians themselves, who are suing the local government and their own diocese.
A number of Orthodox Christians in Makhachkala are suing the city’s administration and the Makhachkala Diocese, demanding that they halt construction of an Orthodox cathedral in Ak-Gyol Park. A cross was recently placed and consecrated on the planned construction site.
There are several reasons for their dissatisfaction: public land is being taken away; the law is being violated — any construction in parks is prohibited; and the rapid development on the shore of Ak-Gyol is having a negative impact on the lake’s ecology. ‘We are not against the church, we are against construction on the park’, the activists add.
Valentin Ivanov, leader of the Kizlyar District Cossacks, is unhappy at the protests.
‘We know what's behind this — a desire to destabilise the situation in the republic. But they are very few, they will not succeed. The normal part of the population in our republic is the majority, and we will win over this minority’, he told OC Media.
Ivanov promised to plant a hundred fruit trees around the church. According to him, ‘there will be a fine microdistrict’ next to the temple .
Shrinking green spaces
Green areas in Makhachkala have been shrinking for years because the city authorities are selling land to private entrepreneurs. These areas are usually turned into shopping centers, apartment buildings, petrol stations, or fast food joints.
Back in February, Shamil Khadulayev, a member of the local Civic Chamber, a government formed consultative civil society institution, reported that green spaces now make up only 6% of Makhachkala, while by law this should be at least 40%.
The area fenced off for construction of the church was once home to the Alley of Friendship, which marked the friendship between Kabardino-Balkaria and Daghestan. Only a stone remains of the destroyed alley now.
Earlier this year, residents of Makhachkala successfully defended the city’s Lenin Kosmomol Park, where there were plans to cut down 60 trees to build a new museum, ‘Russia — My History’.
Activists went to the streets in defence of the century old park in the centre of the city, and a week after the start of the confrontation, head of the republic Ramazan Abdulatipov announced on his Instagram page that the museum would be built elsewhere.
‘The location was ill chosen’
On 7 August, several Orthodox Christians filed a lawsuit against the Makhachkala city administration and the Makhachkala Diocese, citing several violations of the law.
‘By law, it is prohibited to erect buildings which have a negative impact on the area of a park or which interfere with its recreational purpose. The construction of the church obviously does just that. It is already clear that a lot of trees have been cut down or transplanted, there is no grass or shrubs anymore’, the plaintiffs’ lawyer Arsen Magomedov told OC Media.
The petition to the court also refers to the illegal privatisation of public land. By law, public land cannot be privatised. But according to Magomedov, since the diocese might be leased the land without charge, it could eventually obtain it for free. The diocese would only need to submit an application to the city administration, and the land could be transferred.
In order to combat chaotic and irregular construction, the law states that public hearings should be held in neighborhoods and districts affected before any new buildings can be erected. According to Magomedov, there was no such hearing in this instance.
All these claims are described in the court statement submitted in early August. The first hearing was held on 8 September in Makhachkala’s Leninsky District Court.
Speaking before the court, plaintiff Svetlana Anokhina said that she sees it as an attempt to spark ethnic hatred and feels a threat to her life as a result of the proposed church construction.
‘I believe that our republic is fairly tense in terms of interethnic relations. Aggression in people from both sides can flare up instantly. If the place had been chosen differently, for example a different location by Ak-Gyol where there is no park, perhaps this could have been avoided. Now I feel aggression towards Russians and the Orthodox’, Anokhina said in court, adding that people call her an ‘occupier’.
‘This is directly related to the construction. We have nothing against [the church]. But the location was ill chosen. This should be a green space. There is a catastrophic shortage of green spaces in Reduktorny village. Perhaps there is a need for a church as well. But the church should be moved to a site that will suit both sides, without causing interethnic and inter-confessional tension’, she told judge Patimat Dadayeva.
Speaking in court, a representative of the Makhachkala Diocese, Artem Bakiyev, said that granting free use of land is not equivalent to privatisation, and there was no proof that the fenced off area is part of the park.
‘We are not acquainted with expert opinion, so we cannot judge at the moment the extent to which it is correct. The plaintiffs did not present any relevant evidence’, Bakiyev said.
In the plaintiffs’ petition, a photograph was attached showing that in the fenced off area there was once a lawn and bushes.
Magomedov asked Bakiyev whether the diocese had permission to build the church. Bakiyev answered in the negative. Then Magomedov asked the court to forbid the construction in the fenced area for the duration of the trial.
A representative of the city administration, Arsen Aliyev, denied that the fenced area and the cross installed on it meant that this will be the site of the construction.
Judge Dadayeva denied the request to halt construction during the trial, but granted a petition to conduct a survey of the area to determine whether or not it is part of the park.
The next session will be held on 22 September.
Damage to the environment
Lake Ak-Gyol is located in Reduktorny District, in the south east of Makhachkala. It covers an area of almost 2 square kilometers and it has a maximum depth of 4 metres.
Constriction too close to the shore of the lake is decreasing its size and environmentalists are sounding the alarm that human interference is having a detrimental effect on the ecology of the lake.
‘Many unscrupulous developers, especially those building small houses, cafes, and restaurants, lay sewage pipes emptying directly into the lake. Several years ago I discovered three large sewers. In addition, there are several small pipes underground that also discharge waste into the lake’, Marzhan Rasulova, associate professor of the Department of Recreational Geography and Sustainable Development at Daghestan State University told OC Media.
She believes that the complete destruction of the lake’s ecosystem has not yet occurred only because the lake is cleaned periodically with sludge drained from the bottom and reeds removed from its surface.
According to Rasulova, the lake was once abundant with crayfish, which is a good indicator of a healthy aquatic environment. But gradually, she says, the water proved to be unsuitable for them, and they simply disappeared.
A few years ago, Daghestani ecologists planned to cultivate commercial fish in the lake. But it did not work.
‘Before introducing fish into the lake it is necessary to create a water protection area and reduce construction on this territory. There used to be a large population of carp in the lake. Now there are very few of this fish left, and they are not tasty. All the dirt in the lake accumulates in the body of these fish, which is why their meat has an unpleasant smell and taste’, Rasulova said.
There is no point in talking about breeding fish in the lake until it is protected as a natural object, she concludes.
The article was amended on 25 September 2017.