The power politics behind effort to save Moscow's Khimki forest
A protest to stop road-building in the formerly protected Khimki forest near Moscow is gaining traction. Russian analysts say there's more to it than simple environmental concerns.
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"Our people ... are saying [the clear cutting of Khimki Forest] demands more analysis," Medvedev said in his online video blog. He added that his decision had been prompted by the "high public resonance" the issue had attracted.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Khimki controversy accelerated very rapidly, and it made the authorities quite nervous. So they decided to make a pause," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But public hearings are an easy thing to orchestrate, and the Khimki authorities have moved into action by organizing their own public meetings and petition campaigns. For example, they did a poll asking local residents whether they prefer the road to pass through the forest, or through their dachas, which naturally produced 'public support' for building it in the forest."
Local authorities, who stand to gain the most from privatizing a vast tract of real estate on the fringes of Moscow, have been accused of corruption by Chirikova's group, who say the official listed price of forest land of 4,300 rubles (about $140) per hectare is ridiculously low and an obvious cover for dishonest dealing.
Most analysts cautiously agree. "I think Khimki authorities are very much under the influence of corporations and other such interests," says Mr. Markov. "They want this project very much because they have probably included their private interests in the bigger calculations."
Medvedev reiterated his stand at an official forestry conference on Wednesday, saying that expert hearings were needed to decide whether alternative routes for the road might be viable. "This does not imply that economic considerations are sidelined, but we should take into account ecological factors as well when deciding the issue," he said.
This week, the forest route gained the support of powerful Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, whose billionaire wife is one of Russia's leading real estate developers. "The planned and agreed route should stay. It is realistic," Mr. Luzhkov wrote in the government newspaper Rossiskaya Gazeta. "Some sacrifices have been made, and it is a pity. But the price is more justified than the alternatives."
One of those proposed alternatives would have routed the road through the Moscow suburb of Molzhanivovo, where Luzkhov's wife, Yelena Baturina, owns land, says Mikhail Delyagin, director of the independent Institute of Globalization Problems in Moscow. "What we're seeing here is clan struggle, competing business interests" that have supporters at the highest levels of power, he says. "Lots of people have their fingers in this."
Some experts say the official hearings, set to open next week in Russia's Kremlin-guided Public Chamber, are mostly window dressing to make Medvedev look like he's been sensitive to environmental concerns while ultimately rubber-stamping the Putin plan.
"The Public Chamber will probably let the protesters speak and let off steam, but conclude in the end that the majority supports the road being built through the forest," says Carnegie's Mr. Petrov. "Medvedev's image will be polished, because he let the discussion continue for awhile longer."