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A rest for a forest
August 3, 2010 14:16

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 its 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 thats why were not having a minutes 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 Mondays 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.

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 Moscows 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 Sheremetyevoo airport, the pressures to plough through the forest are obvious. And last year the decision was finally made to do so.

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 capitals 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 Russias environmental watchdog and now prefect of Moscows Northern District, which abuts Khimki, declared the project illegal). They also say they have the support of the Public Chamber, State Duma deputies and 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.

     Russia Profile


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