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Environment

Russian forest campaigners seek European help

Russian activists opposed to a road project through a historic park outside Moscow have had little success in their dispute with the government. Now they are seeking outside assistance to save the Khimki forest.

Yevgenia Chirikova

Yevgenia Chirikova has drawn significant media attention to her cause

For the past two years, a proposed highway connecting Moscow to St. Petersburg has been spawning a rare bloom of environmental dissent in Russia.

The highway would cut through the Khimki forest, a belt of woodlands that forms part of Moscow's "Green Lung," which is home to elk, boar and birds.

The region also proved the high-water mark of Nazi Germany's invasion of Russia in the Second World War and opponents of the road project are quick to point out that the forest was left unscathed even then.

The government says the highway is needed to alleviate Moscow's chronic traffic jams and spur economic progress. It would link the Sheremetyevo international airport to the city.

Russian authorities arresting protesters

Russian authorities have taken a hard-line approach to dissent

But detractors say the route doesn't make sense.

Speaking at the Tageszeitung newspaper in Berlin, activist Yevgenia Chirikova said she was not against the construction of a highway. She just wanted it to circumvent the Khimki forest.

"The planned highway is actually very atypical," she said. "It is very curvy and splits the forest into two parts, which will have disastrous effects for the forest."

European involvement

Chirikova was in Berlin to drum up European support for her cause.

She wants the French construction company Vinci to end its involvement in the project, and European politicians to lean on banks and block financing for the project.

Greenpeace, the WWF and concerned individuals had all written letters appealing to Vinci, she said, to little avail.

"Vinci doesn't answer to these letters," she told Deutsche Welle. "Many, many people wrote to this firm."

Vinci said last week that it expected to finalize its contracts and begin construction with its Russian partners this year.

Chirikova at the Tageszeitung in Berlin

In Berlin, Chirikova said the problem is relevant for Europe, too

Rule of law

For Chirikova, the dispute is about more than just the fate of the woods – it's also about the direction of Russian society.

Opponents of the government's plans have endured both vicious beatings at the hands of ultranationalist thugs and the intimidation tactics of the Russian state.

Chirikova's husband was attacked in the Khimki forest and left with several broken ribs, while authorities have threatened to take away her two daughters, ages four and nine, on charges of abuse.

"Two years ago when I saw my (journalist) friend Michael Beketov without fingers, without legs, and without part of his head, I was very afraid," Chirikova said, describing the outcome of an attack in 2008 upon a reporter who was following the Khimki forest story.

Although President Dmitry Medvedev's government suspended the project in July of last year due to pressure from demonstrations, it changed course abruptly in December, reinstating its plans and announcing that the highway would be built by the end of 2013.

"The big danger is that Russia will follow a path of totalitarianism, in which those in power try to force people to their knees," Chirakova said. "And if that happens, then Europe will have a very, very unpleasant neighbor again."

Chirikova in the woods

Chirikova says she wants to protect Russia from totalitarian attitudes

Ulterior motives

Last month, Chirakova and others opposed to the project managed to hand Russian President Dimitri Medvedev an alternative proposal. They say theirs is environmentally sound, less expensive and better accepted among the region's people.

Yet so far their suggestions appear to have fallen on deaf ears.

Russia's transportation minister, Igor Levitin, has said other routes would be more complicated, time consuming and expensive.

If construction companies found them to be unprofitable, it could be left to the Russian government to subsidize losses. Levitin, who also sits on the board of Sheremetyevo airport, claims the project is supported by "everyone."

But Chirakova says the evidence of widespread opposition is overwhelming.

"I believe that our fight is not lost, and I see that many, many people support us," she said. For Russia, it's very high percent of support."

Author: Gerhard Schneibel

Editor: Nathan Witkop

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