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.

Fred Weir/The Christian Science Monitor
Sergei Udaltsev was among some 50 people arrested Aug. 2 during a protest over plans to build a highway through Khimki Forest, near Moscow.

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.

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.

"This proposed road will occupy about 15 percent of the forest, but will fragment it into pieces," says Alexei Yaroshenko, head of the forestry team at Greenpeace-Russia. The forest is about 1,000 hectares, or about 3.8 square miles. "The stability of a forest depends on its size and integrity, and the risk is that this forest will cease to exist."

But many Muscovites say they want the new highway. "It's necessary," says Natalia Modina, spokeswoman for the official Federal Roads Service. "Sheremetyevo alone serves 10 million passengers a year, most of whom come and go by car. Something has to be done about the congestion."

Hidden hand of corruption

Chirikova, who was not present at the Khimki rally but was arrested as she left a Moscow press conference later in the week, says she believes viable alternatives were not considered and the forest route was chosen because it is state-owned land. She claims the area marked for logging includes a large tract that will be developed.

"We're not against a new road in principle, but when we look at this strange route, which twists through the forest, we see it will completely destroy the forest and turn it into a zone of shopping centers," Chirikova says. "We're against that."

Last year, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signed a decree moving Khimki out of its protected status. In March, the Supreme Court rejected a citizen's appeal to overturn the decree.

Some experts say the key to the controversy could be the hidden hand of corruption. "This is some of the most valuable land remaining in Moscow's environs, and some in the Khimki administration and the Russian government stand to make huge profits from commercial development," says Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "The only reason for police to act so brutally toward peaceful protesters is that they are getting orders from above."

Transparency International, which tracks global corruption trends, has found corruption risks, including the fact that Transport Minister Igor Levitan is also head of the board of directors of Sheremetyevo Airport. "We suspect a serious conflict of interest between the road building and the commercial interests of those who own Sheremetyevo," says analyst Anton Pominov.

Mr. Yaroshenko says the outcome could be crucial for Russia's fledgling civil society. "I think the key issue here is that our state does not want its plans interfered with by the public," he says. "If the people from Khimki win, it means that society can influence government decisions. Our authorities appear to really fear such a precedent."

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