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ENVIRONMENT-RUSSIA: Activists Protest Destruction of 500-Year-Old Forest

Kester Kenn Klomegah

MOSCOW, May 19 2011 (IPS) - Environmentalists and rights campaigners have mounted pressure on the Russian government to rescind the decision to demolish more than 500-year-old woodlands to make way for the construction of a new super-highway linking Moscow with the country’s northern capital, St. Petersburg.

Activists protest destruction of Khimki Forest. Credit: Kester Kenn Klomegah/IPS

Activists protest destruction of Khimki Forest. Credit: Kester Kenn Klomegah/IPS

Despite the divided public reaction, the multi-lane motorway project was given the go-ahead in late December, just three months after President Dmitry Medvedev suspended it. Ecologists have argued the new highway could easily be rerouted without destroying the vast woodland and that the project is already fraught with corruption.

Alexey Yaroshenko, a project director at Greenpeace Russia, explained to IPS that “environmentalists are against the development of this project primarily because the government made the wrong choice: from at least 12 different possibilities of construction of this road, they selected one that leads to the most damage to the environment. Nor is this one the shortest or the least expensive.”

“There are alternative ways of building the road that would not lead to the destruction of Khimki Forest. And although development and environmental conservation are both important, development that allows conservation is more important than development that leads to indiscriminate environmental destruction,” he said.

He further pointed out that corruption as the main obstacle for development in the country, and said this project – construction of the road through the Khimki Forest – is one of the symbols of corruption.

Activists risk abuse

The criticisms of environmentalists and rights campaigners have been portrayed as sabotaging government efforts to undertake development projects in the country, Yaroshenko added.

Conservationists camping in the endangered Khimki Forest would have looked like holiday hikers had it not been for broken jaws and emotional tales of attacks, Moskovsky Komsomolets (MK), a widely-circulated daily, reported this week.

The Khimki Forest, located north of Moscow, looks like a battlefield as riot police regularly – and often roughly – disperse groups of demonstrators protesting the forest’s destruction and arrest activists, including environmental champions Yevgenia Chirikova and Yaroslav Nikitenko, Left Front Leader Sergei Udaltsov and Yabloko political party leader Sergei Mitrokhin.

Apparently, their cases will be considered by the local legal authorities at their places of residence. Mitrokhin was already charged with participating in an unsanctioned rally, but surprisingly he had received a phone call from a Moscow Interior Ministry Department official who apologised and asked if the Khimki police had overstepped their bounds.

All the activists were released, however. Later, police arrested four suspects, including a Khimki administration official, who was suspected of organising the assault. The Yabloko leader filed a complaint about the physical abuse he suffered, but said he doubted it would have any effect, as the controversy and arrests continue unabated.

Ecologist Konstantin Fetisov was badly beaten after being released from a police station where he had been questioned about a rally. Udaltsov had a rib broken during a recent crackdown, and activist Sergei Ageyev suffered a concussion, according to the website.

Several journalists who reported on the Khimki controversy have been attacked and badly hurt in the past. Oleg Kashin, a journalist with the reputable Kommersant daily, was beaten with an iron rod by two unknown assailants outside his home, and Mikhail Beketov, the former editor of a local weekly who criticised the motorway project, was left brain-damaged and unable to speak after an attack in Moscow

Posting on their Twitter accounts, environmental activists have criticised Russian police for using heavy-handed tactics and described their actions as appalling.

“It was a very strange attack by the local police. We went for a peaceful walk in the forest, looking for a place to set up camp, when suddenly the police barred our way telling us we were holding an unsanctioned rally and that they had come to arrest us. They got really tough – I saw them throwing people to the ground and kicking them,” Yevgenia Chirikova, a staunch Russian human rights campaigner and powerful leader of the Khimki Forest Defence Movement, told IPS.

Yuri Belov, an environmental activist who belongs to Greenpeace, told IPS that he created, as a contribution against forest destruction, a group on Facebook called “Defence of the Khimki Forest” which is attracting a lot of supporters.

“I think that a majority of the Khimki Forest defenders agree that the Moscow-St. Petersburg road should be built because the existing road does not cope with the traffic volume,” he said. “But they are against the construction of the road through the forest. They have proposed eleven alternatives for the government, some of which would not affect the forest at all – for example, simply widening the existing road on both sides.”

Belov said Russia is one of the most corrupt countries on the planet, and many environmental problems, such as the destruction of forests, happen due to corruption among local officials who disregard the long-term consequences of projects.

“This type of development is very detrimental to the environment, and unfortunately, the environmental movement and civil society are generally weak due to the previous totalitarian regime and the result of usurpation of power by Vladimir Putin and his close colleagues from the KGB. They continue brainwashing the population with propaganda, and keep the majority just above the survival level. In such conditions, ordinary people cannot show concern about conservation of the environment,” Belov told IPS.

Prime Minister Putin said the government was ready to take into account environmentalists’ concerns over the construction of the controversial Moscow-St. Petersburg highway, but warned against politicising the issue.

“Problems always emerge when it comes to development and environmental protection. Sometimes ecological problems are used for political purposes,” Putin said, adding that in order to find a compromise, both politicians and ecologists should restrain their ambitions.

Following Medvedev’s order, the Russian Ministry of Natural Resources said it was prepared to join discussions on new possible routes for the highway.

“We are ready to join the discussion of this issue together with the United Russia party, the Russian Transport Ministry, non-governmental and environmental organisations, and implement the Russian president’s order,” a senior official from the Ministry said.

Russian environmentalists, the Khimki Forest protection groups, and international organisations such as Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, and Transparency International, combined with the leaders of the large-scale grassroots protests, are urging President Medvedev to conduct an independent assessment of the controversial construction of the super-highway through the forest.

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