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Fight to save Moscow forest from development tests tolerance for dissent

'The public should have some say,' an opposition leader told the Monitor of a proposal for a 10-lane road through a Moscow forest. Moments later, he and 50 others were arrested.

By Correspondent / August 9, 2010

Sergei Udaltsev was among some 50 people arrested Aug. 2 during a protest over plans to build a highway through Khimki Forest, near Moscow.

Fred Weir/The Christian Science Monitor

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Khimki, Russia

The small band of environmentalists wants to stop construction – using peaceful means – of a 10-lane toll highway through a local old-growth forest. But they have met with an escalating police crackdown, and human rights experts say the unfolding struggle over the fate of Khimki Forest is fast becoming a litmus test of authorities' willingness to allow civil society activists any voice in issues of public development.

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Official irritation with the Defenders of the Khimki Forest was on full display Aug. 2 in the village of Storbiyevo, on the edge of the sweeping forest that features some of the Moscow region's last stands of ancient oak trees. About 100 activists gathered in a field for a regular protest meeting were quickly surrounded by police and denied access to the woods, which are a public park.

Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of Yabloko, a small liberal party, says his support for the group is a matter of fundamental freedoms. "This is a great old forest, and it's part of the protected green belt around Moscow," he said. "Whether it should be chopped down to make room for a commercial road is a question the public should have some say about. But there is little open discussion, the media are censored, and the police don't permit people to gather here."

Moments later, police seized Mr. Mitrokhin and put him in a paddy wagon. Though he had shown no visible resistance, and described himself as a participant, not an organizer, he was charged with "disobeying police" and "organizing an unsanctioned rally," which can carry a prison sentence of 15 days. Elite riot police, known as OMON, subsequently swooped down on the crowd and took away Sergei Udaltsev, leader of a leftist group, and several other activists. An hour and 50 or so arrests later, only a few knots of dispirited protesters remained.

"These people are simply trying to realize their rights to free assembly and free expression, which are guaranteed by the Russian Constitution," says Tatiana Lokshina, with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "The pretexts of the authorities [for cracking down] in this case are not credible. It is clear that they are doing everything in their power to inhibit any sort of independent activism."

Three-year battle

The battle over Khimki Forest has been building for more than three years, since a local woman named Yevgenia Chirikova noticed a large swath of trees with red bands around them, apparently marked for logging. Since the forest had been protected by law for decades, Ms. Chirikova organized local citizens. They learned that a company called Avtodor, created by the Ministry of Transport, was planning a toll road through the woods to relieve pressure on the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway and create a faster route to Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport.

Many international environmental groups support the Khimki activists, saying the destruction of one of the last big forests around Moscow could have disastrous consequences for air quality in the smog-choked capital.

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