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Russian President Responds To Outcry Over Contested Highway Plan


Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk sings on Pushkin Square in Moscow at a demonstration to protect Khimki forest on August 22.
MOSCOW -- In a rare case of the Russian authorities responding to popular protests, President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered the suspension of plans to build a highway through a forest outside Moscow.

In a message posted on his video blog, Medvedev, standing in front of a backdrop of trees, said, "Although a decision was made by the government to build the highway, people, including the ruling party and the opposition, social groups, and experts, say that additional analysis is needed."

He added that: "I order the government to halt the realization of the construction and carry out additional discussions."

Earlier, Russia's ruling party had stepped into the fray surrounding the scheduled destruction of Moscow's Khimki forest, calling on Medvedev to intervene in what had become one of the country's most politically divisive issues.

United Russia urged Medvedev to look into plans for running part of a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the forest, which is located just north of the Russian capital.

"There are people in United Russia who believe that construction should continue, but there are also those who think it is necessary to further examine this issue to take the environmental factor into consideration," Vyacheslav Volodin, a top official with the United Russia party, announced at a press conference today.

"So we thought it was right to appeal to the head of state, so that there is an objective picture of the situation."

Volodin's remarks echoed an earlier statement posted on the United Russia website. The author of that appeal, State Duma speaker and leading party member Boris Gryzlov, said the issue was "not a simple one" and that the Khimki project should be more "thoroughly investigated" in order to determine whether the route of the road should be changed.

This appeared to tone down an earlier version of the statement, posted earlier today, which called for Medvedev to halt the controversial highway construction outright.

The statement from the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin signals a growing awareness among the ruling elite of the massive public outrage surrounding the $8 billion project.

Growing Protests

Resistance to the Khimki project has gained strength throughout the summer, with environmental activists campaigning to block the road construction. This month's spate of devastating wildfires has only heightened public anger over what is seen as government neglect of the country's forests.

President Dmitry Medvedev (left) has been pressed by the party led by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to change plans.
Activists last month built a tent camp in the forest and established a round-the-clock watch in the forest to prevent loggers from clearing trees. The activists were eventually ousted and the perimeter of the forest is now tightly guarded.

The protests, however, have continued, reaching a peak on August 22, when some 2,000 demonstrators gathered in central Moscow for a banned rock concert protesting the Khimki project.

Bono, the front man of the Irish rock band U2, also appeared to back the Khimki protest by performing with Russian rock legend Yury Shevchuk during a concert in Moscow on August 25.

Shevchuk has taken a leading role in the Khimki opposition movement.

But Will It Actually Change?

Environmental activists welcomed today's move by United Russia. Yaroslav Nikitenko, a member of the Save Khimki Forest movement, spoke to RFE/RL's Russian Service after the party issued its appeal to halt the construction, but before they altered the statement to simply call for an investigation.

Nikitenko said the decision caused the activists "great joy." But he also expressed worries the move would prove to be a political gesture. "I hope this doesn't just remain a political move and this statement leads to a revision of the highway route to keep the forest alive," he said.

The controversy over the Khimki project has pitted the Kremlin and Moscow regional authorities against the city's mayor, Yury Luzhkov, who despite his own affinity for development projects has spoken out against Khimki.

The news website today quoted Luzhkov as saying he did not believe it would be difficult to alter the route of the highway project to circumvent the forest, which is frequently referred to as Moscow's "green lungs."
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