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Crusading Anti-Kremlin Ecologist Sets Sights On Russian Politics

Crusading Anti-Kremlin Ecologist Ventures Into Politics
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KHIMKI, Russia -- When Muscovite Yevgenia Chirikova moved to the leafy suburban town of Khimki a decade ago with her husband and their newborn daughter, she was dreaming of a peaceful family life far from Moscow's noise and fumes.

That dream never came true.

Instead, the planned construction of a major highway through a forest near Khimki transformed the 35-year-old into an indefatigable eco-warrior and one of the Kremlin's most strident critics.

After battling to preserve the forest for six years, Chirikova, who holds two degrees in aviation and economics as well as an MBA, is now running for mayor of Khimki -- her second shot at the job.

She formally registered as a candidate last week and on September 3 submitted the list of signatures she needs to run in the October 14 poll.

Chirikova hopes her foray into politics will help curb the environmental damage she says Russian authorities are inflicting in Khimki and beyond.

"When I began fighting for the Khimki Forest, I thought it was a local problem," she says. "I had no idea that there are Khimki forests across the whole of Russia. You can just hear them gorge on our land. How can we tolerate this?"

In the past eight months, Chirikova has tapped into her experience organizing sit-ins in the Khimki Forest to back a wave of protests against Vladimir Putin's return to the Kremlin for a third presidential term.

She has since grown into one of Russia's main opposition figures, at times addressing crowds of demonstrators in Moscow.

Civil Society, At A Heavy Price

For many, she illustrates the emergence of civil society in the country.

Her electoral program offers a bottom-up, consensus-driven approach to improving life in this city of around 200,000 people, where many residents criticize local authorities for leveling parks to make way for high-rise apartment blocks.

Chirikova says her new political role is an extension of her efforts to preserve the environment. "I don't want gulags, I don't want a revolution, I don't want bloody coups," she says. "I have children, I just want them to have a normal, dignified life."

Yevgenia Chirikova is detained by the police at an opposition tent camp on Kudrinskaya Square in Moscow in May.
Yevgenia Chirikova is detained by the police at an opposition tent camp on Kudrinskaya Square in Moscow in May.
Her defiance of the authorities has come at a price. She has been detained, manhandled by police, and attacked along with other activists at a protest camp in Khimki.

Her husband has been beaten and the social services have threatened to take away her two daughters, accusing her of neglect.

Mikhail Beketov, a journalist who supported the protests against the building of the highway, was beaten and left with severe brain damage. Beketov had uncovered alleged large-scale corruption surrounding the construction of the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki Forest.

Two years later, her fellow activist Konstantin Fetisov was viciously beaten and spent one year in a coma as a result of the attack.

Activists have managed to slow but not halt the highway's construction.

Taking On The Machine

But Chirikova says she will not be silenced and is already actively drumming up support ahead of next month's election.

Her chances of winning are hard to assess so early in the race. She won only 15 percent of the vote when she ran for Khimki mayor in 2009, seven percentage points less than the Kremlin-backed winner.

So far, five other would-be-candidates have expressed their intention to run this year. Her main rival is acting Mayor Oleg Shakhov, a Kremlin ally who formerly headed the state agency that commissioned the highway slated to run through the Khimki Forest.

Political analyst Mikhail Tulsky predicts the vote will be fixed to ensure Shakhov's victory. "There can be no opposition mayor in Khimki, which has a system of total electoral falsification," he says. "In the past four or five years, 90 percent of mayors [across Russia] who defeated United Russia candidates were removed early from their post or sent to prison. We are talking about some 50 opposition mayors."

Yevgenia Chirikova talks to the media after filing documents at an election commission office to run in the Khimki mayoral election on August 27.
Yevgenia Chirikova talks to the media after filing documents at an election commission office to run in the Khimki mayoral election on August 27.
Natalia Zubarevich, an expert at the Moscow-based Independent Institute for Social Policy, also sees Chirikova's odds of winning as slim.

"Although their authority has been severely reduced, mayors can still stage something serious, provided that the local community stands behind them," Zubarevich says. "Khimki is too large, too heterogeneous, the local community is unlikely to stand up for its mayor. The trouble in Russia is that close-knit communities are practically nonexistent."

Odds Stacked Against Her

An opinion poll carried out by the independent Levada Center in 2010 showed that three-quarters of Khimki residents opposed the construction of the new road.

But electoral campaigns in Russia tend to focus on economic issues, and despite Chirikova's high-profile crusade to save the Khimki Forest, many local residents have still never heard of her.

In a vox pop recently conducted by RFE/RL in Khimki, about half of those interviewed did not know her name.

Chirikova has also been the target of a smear campaign accusing her of being on Washington's payroll.

On August 27, opponents showered her with fake $100 bills as she spoke to journalists on her way to register as a candidate.

Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Tom Balmforth, with additional reporting by Maria Stroikova of RFE/RL's Russian Service

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