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Analysis & Opinion
03.09.10 Seeing Trees Behind The Khimki Forest
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Alexandre Strokanov

In a move that surprised many in Russia and abroad, President Dmitry Medvedev halted the construction of a federal highway through the ancient oak Khimki forest just outside Moscow, after a prolonged civil campaign by local environmental activists against the road project. Why did he do it? Was it because he woke up to public outcry? Or was it because his political advisors quickly saw that the issue was doing too much damage to him and United Russia, and might help rally the opposition?

The local grass-roots campaign to save the Khimki forest has swelled into a national cause, resulting in a thousands-strong rally in central Moscow last week.

There are several things that are surprising about Medvedev’s decision to intervene. One is that the highway project through the Khimki forest has been strongly supported by Prime Minister Putin since its inception. On July 29, Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the prime minister is being kept informed "on a continual basis" about the project, including the felling of trees at Khimki, and that work is proceeding in accordance with the law. But after Medvedev’s statement (in the president’s video-blog, of all places), Putin had to backtrack and made it look like a collective decision within the ruling tandem.

Putin downplayed any disagreement with Medvedev over the highway, saying he had discussed the issue with the president. "This is entirely consistent with the logic of our behavior and actions in recent years," Putin said. Could this be a sign of a rift between the two? Medvedev made Putin look weak and defensive – not something the Russian national leader is used to.

The second interesting thing about Medvedev’s move is that it has been made in response to the "concern expressed by a rather significant number of Muscovites," political parties and civic groups. He specifically mentioned an appeal to him by the leaders of the United Russia Party, who interrupted their vacations to suddenly express grave concern for the Khimki forest.

Ironically, it was the United Russia Party that assured the smooth sailing of the decision to build the federal toll road from Moscow to St. Petersburg through the Khimki forest, and even called the civil protesters “paid provocateurs.” What prompted United Russia’s sudden change of heart? Perhaps it was the realization that this seemingly local issue is quickly swelling into a rallying point for all political opposition to the authorities, and threatens the United Russia Party with voters’ outrage at the upcoming regional elections in early October? But why did Medvedev need United Russia’s appeal as a pretext for making a win-win move on a hot political issue? Why did he break with Putin’s tradition never to yield to public pressure? Why did he think it was important to demonstrate that the president is responsive to public concerns?

Another interesting aspect of Medvedev’s decision is that it provides only for a temporary halt of the deforestation, and calls for more public discussion of the construction plans. This makes Medvedev look like he has no position on the issue, and leaves open the possibility that he might later back the original plan to build the highway through the forest. Why bother with interim measures and lose face afterward, when he has the authority to order a complete stop?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Medvedev’s decision is that it happened at the time when prime minister Putin was stealing the public’s eye with glitzy macho stunts during his trip to Russia’s Far East. Putin, in what looked like full campaign mode, was making daily televised appearances in exotic environments – hanging out with grizzly bears, taking skin samples from whales, observing the environmental impact of global warming on the Russian Arctic shores, and even driving a Lada on a recently completed highway that finally linked Russia’s Far East with the rest of the country.

All this extravaganza happened while Medvedev was meeting with the CSTO leaders in Armenia and sipping tea with Bono in Sochi. The decision on the Khimki forest quickly brought the media’s attention to Medvedev, while making Putin look like a traveler vacationing at the public’s expense.

Why did he do it? Was it because he woke up to public outcry? Or was it because his political advisors quickly saw that the issue was doing too much damage to him and United Russia, and might help rally the opposition? Did he do it to spite Putin and deny him the advantages of early political campaigning? How will this decision impact the relationship within the tandem? How did Medvedev handle this situation from both the political and public relations points of view?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

The character of Medvedev’s decision is actually quite interesting. First of all, as his official site states, Medvedev announced his decision in his blog. My question is: is the president’s blog an official venue for the announcement of such decisions, and why was the “blogosphere” informed first? Why is this “instruction to the government” not officially listed among documents on his Web site yet? At least when I checked, I could find nothing. I simply wanted to see what it actually is, and whether it has any deadlines, for example. All of the above-mentioned suggests that this was just a populist PR move, and a move directed at a particular group of people.

This action should be recognized as skillful and timely. United Russia is looking forward to the upcoming elections in the fall in several regions, and it was trying to attract some new voters. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is an influential man in the party, was looking out for his own interests, suggesting an alternative route through the Molzhaninovo district of Moscow. Luzhkov may simply be trying to score more points in his competition with the governor of the Moscow Region, who was surprisingly quiet all this time, although Khimki is in the Moscow Region and not part of Moscow. If the route goes through Molzhaninovo Moscow will benefit, since the land for construction will have to be purchased or leased by the federal government from the city.

Could this be a sign of a rift between Medvedev and Putin? Of course it is not. This was obviously a negotiated and agreed move between both of them. Medvedev is playing the role of a guarantor of the people’s interests who hears their voices, and Putin is playing the role of a man who gets things done. That is why the next day Putin said that the road between Moscow and St. Petersburg will certainly be built. He does not look to me weak or defensive at all. On the contrary, just check his interviews from “behind the wheel” with Andrei Kolesnikov of Kommersant, and several other similar commentaries and interviews.

The Russian public, which reads papers and watches television, saw a very energetic and straightforward person, who has his hands on the most crucial issues that impact the lives of the ordinary Russians. Putin went to see with his own eyes one of the most vulnerable regions of the country. What other Russian or Soviet leader could claim to have actually driven a Russian-made Lada from Khabarovsk to Chita, stopped wherever he wanted and met with real people on the road? The Russian media was paying much more attention to Putin driving through the Far East region last week than to the Khimki forest controversy, which is certainly not a national issue at all.

The existing road between Moscow and St. Petersburg, also known as the “road of death,” is really a shame for Russia. I drive on it at least a couple of times per year, and I saw with my own eyes that this road has no future and a new road must be built as soon as possible. There is a famous Russian saying that the country has two problems: roads and fools. It looks like Putin seriously decided to take care of the first problem, and I am sure the second problem will try to prevent him from accomplishing this successfully. And the story of the Khimki forest is just an example.

I will suggest returning to this topic in a while, maybe later this year, just to see who actually won. I hope it will be Putin and the Russian people who will finally see better roads, including those which are going through beautiful and most important clean forests, like here in Vermont.

Ethan Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law, University of Wollongong, Australia:

As I understand, the Khimki highway controversy remains to be settled. The Governor of the Moscow Region Boris Gromov seems to believe that some segment of the Russian population supports the project going forward. For the near-term, the dispute may be resolved in a manner that appears to be apolitical – following a hearing organized by the country’s Public Chamber scheduled later this month, where both scientists and members of the public can express their views. It is likely that the battle will resume again at some point in the future.

For many years, the Russian (and Soviet) authorities have tolerated demonstrations by environmental activists who
opposed governmental policy. I am not aware of any other group enjoying such a status in the country.

Environmentalists have been fighting to protect Lake Baikal for more than 30 years. They enjoy the luxury of being able to win the support of scientists both in the country and abroad. Furthermore, they can use Russian nationalism to their advantage – it is difficult to argue against the importance of preserving the Motherland for future generations
It was not so long ago that the Boris Yeltsin government prosecuted former Soviet naval officer Alexander Nikitin, then affiliated with the Norwegian-based Bellona Group, for “revealing” the “state secret” that the Soviet (and presumably, the Russian) navy had a practice of dumping nuclear waste in international waters. Initially, the authorities filed criminal charges against him based on Soviet criminal law for acts that were clearly lawful under Russian law.

Subsequently, the Russian government sought foreign cooperation (e.g. with Canada) to resolve the “Nikitin embarrassment” in a manner where it would not have to admit that it was wrong. It hoped that he would agree to be released from prison and eventually to move abroad. Nikitin had had the integrity to reject the idea of not standing by his principles. He insisted on being fully exonerated and ultimately was acquitted of all charges by the Russian Supreme Court in 2000.

Back to the present – in light of devastations caused by the recent wave of fires, president Medvedev must recognize that individuals passionate about environmental protection have legitimate policy concerns. He has enough common sense to see the risk: if the Russian government did not take public opinion in this area into account, there would be a great danger that this issue would be politicized, providing the opposition with an opportunity to expand its base of support.

In contrast to prime minister Putin, who tends to react emotionally and hostilely to any criticism, Medvedev has a less authoritarian personality. He is more nimble intellectually and more approachable as a person than his mentor. The difference in how they reacted to the demonstrations in Vladivostok against an increase in tariffs on automobiles in late 2008 is another good illustration of the Russian president’s appreciation of what is a legitimate policy gripe, and what is a real challenge to the leadership’s political power and legitimacy.

Irrespective of the merits, Putin can stand to learn quite a bit from his protege. If something is too rigid, when sufficient force is applied to it, it will eventually break. Perhaps Putin will come to recognize Medvedev’s common sense and wisdom. At this point, I doubt that the Khimki highway represents an issue for which he is willing to run onto a sword. In the future, his present stance may give him greater political legitimacy and popularity than his detached mentor.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

Let us first note that Medvedev did not “halt” the construction of the toll road through the Khimki forest, but only suspended construction for further discussions about the planned highway.

Secondly, for anyone who has been stuck in traffic on the decrepit “Leningradka,” the need for a modern road into and out of Moscow should be quite obvious and compelling.

Regarding the protesters, one can only wish that they would be as eager to keep Russia’s suburban forests clean as they are about stopping the clearing of trees in Khimki.

Moscow is a megapolis, one of many on our planet. Moscow needs this road. A road must be built somewhere. There are no ideal options. A true solution would be the reduction of large cities like Moscow, Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Beijing, Shanghai, Tokyo, Mexico, Sao Paulo and others by factors of five to ten. Regrettably, humanity does not know how to do this in a benign way, and probably never will. In all the cities mentioned above, there are constant issues like the one at Khimki, so one can only say “welcome to the 21st century, Russia and Russian Khimki forest defenders!”

Some of the discourse about Medvedev’s and Putin’s response seems like a throwback to the “Kremlin tea leaves readings” of long ago. The reality is that the Khimki forest situation is not much of a deal in the overall political scenery in Russia; one must be truly desperate for signs of unrest to extrapolate the “thousands” of protesters in defense of the forest into an issue of “national importance.” The summer wildfires are really of national importance – and the government performed quite well, far better than the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency after hurricane Katrina.

The same observations apply to the suggested “rift” between Putin and Medvedev on the subject of the road through the Khimki forest. Firstly, the topic is insignificant on a national scale. It may be very important to locals. It may also be important to the marginalized “opposition,” who are rebels in search of a cause. However, nationally the topics of economic recovery, relations with Washington, education, defense, healthcare and many others are far more important than the layout of a road through a suburban forest.

Secondly, there is far more coherence between the policies and decisions of Medvedev and Putin than there is discrepancy. This is not surprising: they have worked together for nearly 20 years now. This is not a team that shows real signs of fissure.

The repetitious suggestion of a “rift” seems very like wishful thinking by outsiders who resort to all kinds of political divinations (flights of eagles, the placement of Politbureau members on the Mausoleum on May Day, the entrails of the dead Lavrenty Beria), thus confirming their fundamental lack of access to genuine information.

The same can be said of the suggestion that Putin’s travels in the Russian Far East and Siberia were “in full campaign mode.” The presidential elections are two years away, and not even amateur political technologists consider activities so far ahead as political campaigning. Invoking William of Occam, the answer is much simpler: these regions are very important and require senior official attention. And Putin genuinely likes forests, seas, rivers and lakes and the life that dwells therein. He is like most Russians in that regard – including the defenders of the Khimki forest. And yes, that makes Putin very popular. There is no substantive reason to suppose this is a calculated posture. As Sigmund Freud said once: “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
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