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Analysis & Opinion
27.07.10 Khimki Battlefield
By Roland Oliphant

The eco warriors camped out in the Khimki forest just north of Moscow won a fragile and reversible victory yesterday, when the firm building the controversial Moscow to St. Petersburg highway agreed to halt its forest clearing until the legality of the project had been verified. The agreement amounts to a delicate truce in a confrontation between environmental activists, loggers and police that was beginning to resemble a pitched battle.

The Khimki forest, a 1000 hectare reserve of birch trees just north of Moscow, has become the scene of dramatic confrontation between environmentalists and road builders. Local people and activists from a group calling itself the “Ecological Defense of the Moscow Region” or ECMO, along with Greenpeace Russia, and the “Left Front” civil movement first clashed with construction workers when logging started July 14, and the situation soon escalated until the tabloid press dubbed the Khimki forest a “battlefield.”

Things reached a peak early Friday morning, when a camp activists set up was menaced by anonymous masked men in white T-shirts, then very reluctantly defended by policemen (activists said they had to lie under the police cars to stop the officers from leaving), and finally broken up by men in civilian clothes, while OMON riot police arrested six of the activists and a Radio Svoboda correspondent – prompting an outraged complaint from the Union of Journalists. The seven were later charged with hindering the movement of a police vehicle.

On Monday the battle continued when unidentified “hooligans” attacked activists who showed up to establish a new camp. Then accusations began to fly the other way, when TeploTekhnika, the firm building the road, told the Komsomolskaya Pravda news daily that “unidentified men in jeans” had attacked its workers on Saturday night.
By Tuesday the tabloid was wryly noting that “it turns out there are several groups running around the woods; one attacking environmentalists, another hitting builders, and a third striking the police.” But at least some middle ground had been found – at a press conference in the forest Monday the sides announced they had reached a not-exactly amicable agreement to halt the logging for 24 hours while TeploTekhnika produces the documents it says will prove the operation is legal (and which the activists say the company does not have).

Neither side is resting on its laurels. “Of course it’s not a total victory; a real victory will be when they change the route of the road,” said Yaroslav Nikitenko, an ECMO activist. “The work can start again at any moment, and that’s why we’re not having a minute’s rest,” he said, adding that he believed logging machinery had already been gathered in the vicinity of the forest. Radio Svoboda reported Tuesday that it is impossible to get to the site of Monday’s eviction because the area is patrolled by both police and the “unidentified men in masks” who have become a feature of the story.

The arguments on both sides are similar to clashes between environmentalists and developers anywhere in the world – the builders say this is the only viable route; the activists say it will destroy unique ecosystems. Both sides insist the law is on their side.

Everybody agrees that it needs to be built - the trauma inflicted by the current three (and occasionally two) lane road from Moscow to St Petersburg is a humiliation for commuters that no one should have to go through, and a modern, multi-lane highway has been on the books since then-President Vladimir Putin signed off on the idea in 2004. But progress on the project has been hindered by disputes over which route it should take.

The dilemma revolved mostly around whether to follow a long-standing Soviet-era plan to build the highway along the route of the Oktyabrskaya railway, which leads straight to St Petersburg, or through the Khimki forest via Sheremetyevo, the site of one of Moscow’s busiest airports.

In simple geographic terms, the first plan is the most logical. As Nikitenko pointed out, “it is far more direct.” But it would also be far more expensive, and slower to build. Most of the land along the railway line fell into the hands of private developers during the 1990s, and following that course now would require the state to negotiate a buy-back of numerous plots. With money short and the new road a pressing social need for almost the whole of North-West Russia, in conjunction with the recently documented problems with access to Sheremetyevo airport, the pressures to plough through the forest are obvious. And last year the decision was finally made to do so.

But the movement for the defense of Khimki forest, which has been fighting against the second route almost since Putin’s 2004 decree, says there is more to it than that. “This is not so much about the forest, as about the fact that the forest is close to Moscow and stands on very valuable land,” said Nikitenko. Asked exactly who stood to benefit from laying the road through the forest, he named two men: Moscow Region Governor Boris Gromov and Federal Transport Minister Igor Levitin. “Transparency International [the corruption watchdog] has already backed us on Levitin,” he said.

Nikitenko was referring to a study conducted by the Russian branch of Transparency International at the request of the movement to defend the Khimki forest earlier this year. Elena Panfilova, Transparency International’s Moscow director, confirmed that the study found “question marks,” over the project, but pointed out that the researchers were only assessing “corruption risk,” – not whether any had actually occurred.

“We found three problems. First, there was confusion over responsibilities in the selection process. Second, there was little transparency in decision-making or public discussion. Third, there were potential conflicts of interest in some of the actions of the Transport Ministry.”

The most obvious potential conflict of interest is that Levitin was not only heavily involved in deciding the route of the new road, but is also chairman of Sheremetyevo airport. That’s not quite the same as proof that he allowed his own interests to affect his decision-making, said Panfilova, especially since there are some powerful legitimate reasons for the decision. But the temptation does need to be spelled out.

And Nikitenko’s point about the value of the land also has some truth to it, said Panfilova. It will be much easier and quicker for developers to turn a profit on the easily acquirable green-belt land, rather than on the already owned and developed land near the Oktyabrskaya railway.

Whatever happens next, it is certain that the defenders of the Khimki forest are not likely to give up. They are doing “everything they can from the legal point of view” to hold up the project, including arguing that the Transport Ministry has no right to go ahead with the plan without the approval of the Moscow city government (Khimki lies outside the capital’s jurisdiction, but City Hall has been leery about chopping into the forest in the past. In 2007 Oleg Mitvol, the then-deputy head of the Russia’s environmental watchdog and now prefect of Moscow’s Northern District, which abuts Khimki, declared the project illegal). They also say they have the support of the Public Chamber, State Duma deputies and (according to Nikitenko) the outspoken Liberal Democrat Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

But they will want to be careful. In November 2008 a local journalist Mikhail Beketov, was beaten unconscious after publishing vociferous criticism of the plans. His attackers have never been caught, but he himself has linked the attack with his articles.
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