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Russia's Khimki Forest Standoff Continues

Members of the movement for the protection of Khimki forest in a tent camp during a picket held on the site of the deforestation on July 19.
Environmental activists emerge from their tents after a seventh night spent in the Khimki forest, where they are camped out to prevent loggers from starting work on a highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg.

It's been one week since the activists set up a round-the-clock watch in the forest north of Moscow on July 15 after driving away loggers, who they claim were working without permits.

An area roughly the size of three football fields has already been felled.

Environmentalist Yevgenya Chirikova insists protesters are not trying to block the construction of the $8 billion highway, which authorities say will dramatically speed up travel between Russia's two largest cities.

"We are ready for a constructive dialogue," Chirikova says. "Our demands are very simple: we want our lungs, our oaks, our trees, our water to stay untouched. We are not against the highway's construction, but we want it to bypass our forest."

'Pure Craziness'

Chirikova, who is spearheading efforts to save the forest, moved to the small town of Khimki several years ago to live closer to the forest, a pristine expanse of centenary oaks and wild animals.

Now, like many other local residents, she is watching in dismay as authorities push ahead with plans to destroy large swaths of the forest despite public resistance.

Police detain Konstantin Kosyakin after he and others tried to deliver their protest statement to the government in Moscow.
Chirikova and some 20 other activists gathered today in front of the government building in Moscow to hand a petition against the project, which has drawn some 20,000 signatures.

The activists were hoping to obtain a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Instead, six of them were violently detained by police.

"This is nonsense," Chirikova says. "People came to hand a letter to the government and for this, their arms are twisted and they are dragged to an unknown destination. This is pure craziness."

Political Support

A number of political parties have openly voiced support for the campaign to save the Khimki forest.

Transport experts have thrown their weight behind the activists. They say the highway's proposed route through the forest, designed to ease traffic congestion by offering an alternative road to Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, will actually increase travel time between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Environmentalists claim authorities deliberately engineered a recent four-day traffic jam on the road leading to the airport to gain support for the highway.

They also accuse the government of manipulating laws and changing the forest's official status to allow its deforestation.

The group filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights after Russia's Supreme Court in April ruled the highway was legal. The Federal State Enterprise Roads of Russia this month also gave the project the green light.

Even if the deforestation were declared illegal, Greenpeace lawyer Mikhail Krendlin says the odds of anyone been prosecuted are almost nil.

"Unfortunately, there have been many such instances recently, especially in forests that lie close to big cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg," says Krendlin, who is also a former Natural Resources Ministry official. "The reasons for this are obvious. Russia's legislation on forests allows people to do almost anything and is vague when it comes to accountability."

Tightening Up The Green Belt

Environmentalists say felling part of the Khimki forest will have devastating effects on the environment and boost the incidence of respiratory diseases.

The forest is part of Moscow's rapidly dwindling Green Belt, designed in Soviet times to contain pollution and preserve wildlife.

Environmentalist and academician Aleksei Yablokov says building a highway through the Khimki forest will effectively kill its ecosystem.

"Any ecosystem starts to degrade when it is crossed by a road," says Yablokov. "For the first couple of years, it may seem there is nothing terrible about 100 or 150 hectares being felled for a highway, out of a forest of thousands of hectares. In reality, this means the end of Khimki forest's entire ecosystem."