The Russian government has lifted a halt on construction of a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg that would destroy part of the Khimki forest. Ecologists still hope they will be able to overturn the decision.
Parts of the Khimki forest will become a highway by 2013
Moscow has approved a plan to build a highway through a forest outside the capital, in defiance of protests that had become a rallying cause for the opposition.
Demonstrations against the construction of a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg had prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to postpone the project, in what many observers saw as a nod by the state to popular pressure.
But Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said the government commission tasked with investigating the project had given its green light to the plan. Transport Minister Igor Levitin said the road would be built by the end of 2013, according to Russian news agencies.
The commission approved building the highway after "taking into account all the factors - transport, economic, social and legal," Ivanov, who headed the panel, said in comments broadcast on state television.
"We believe that from the judicial point of view the proposed route is completely legal," he said.
Opposing the government can be dangerous in Russia
Ivanov added that four billion rubles ($130 million, 98 million euros) would be paid as compensation for the ecological damage to the Khimki forest and that some 500 hectares (1,200 acres) of new forest would be planted to replace the 100 destroyed.
But ecologists continue to decry the project for destroying the area of mixed woods and marshes that play an important part in a sensitive forest, which is a haven for wildlife in the heavily built-up Moscow region.
"This is a birds' paradise," Yevgenia Chirikova, who for months has organized protests against the highway's construction, told Deutsche Welle. "There is a protected marsh area where we can find moose and wild boar. Even though one can drive from here to the Kremlin in 25 minutes, we do have really wild places here."
While Chirikova admitted a new highway connecting Russia two largest cities is necessary, she added that despite presidential promises, the public had been left out of discussions on how work should proceed in the woods where Peter the Great's father once hunted.
"Medvedev promised us public discussions: There were none. He promised to listen to public experts: Let's hear them!" she said.
Risks of opposition
Protests against the highway grew in magnitude over summer, culminating in a rare thousands-strong rally in central Moscow in August led by veteran Russian rocker and Kremlin critic Yury Shevchuk.
Environmental activism remains a risky undertaking in Russia. Police have broken up protests against the highway and journalists accusing the government of corruption in connection with the road's construction have come under attack.
Mikhail Beketov, the editor-in-chief of the local newspaper Khimkinskaya Pravda, was beaten by unknown assailants in 2008 so severely that he is now partially paralyzed, suffers from brain damage, has difficulty speaking and lost four fingers and part of his leg. The attack came shortly after Beketov had published an article in which he accused local officials of corruption.
Oleg Kashin, a journalist for the Kommersant daily, covered the issue and was beaten in an attack in November that was condemned around the world. Activist Konstantin Fetisov was also badly injured in an attack with a baseball bat in the same month and remains in a coma.
Beketov is partially paralyzed after being beaten over two years ago
Bigger than a highway
The government's response to the protests shows that the highway issue has expanded beyond an environmental concern, Chirikova said.
"The Khimki forest is no longer just an environmental problem," she said. "There is an environmental side to it. But this is a problem of corruption."
Chirikova, who has been arrested a number of times for her work, said she felt threatened and worried for her two children and husband, who had his ribs broken in an attack.
However, she added that she remained convinced that cutting down the forest's trees was illegal, bad for her town and her country. According to an opinion poll, three quarters of Russians agree with her.
"If we don't fight and stand up for our rights, and keep silent about such crimes against Beketov and Fetisov, then this will lead us straight back to Stalin's Gulag," she said. "As citizens we must realize that we cannot run anywhere. We cannot go to the police or the prosecutor's office, nobody will defend us. Only by uniting ourselves can we somehow help ourselves."
Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp, Sean Sinico (Reuters, AFP, AP)
Editor: Nathan Witkop