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Russian Government OKs Controversial Highway Through Khimki Forest

Felled trees at the future site of the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway passing through Khimki Forest.
A Russian government committee has approved the construction of a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway passing through Khimki Forest.

Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stressed that the committee -- tasked with analyzing the possibility of an alternative route -- had been attentive to the concerns of ecological activists and had adjusted construction plans in order to further protect the forest.

"We tried to examine every aspect of the construction of this highway in the most objective manner and, believe me, we gave very careful consideration to the environmental issue," Ivanov said.

"It is for that reason that the additional decisions made today have to do with the environment, with the additional planting [of trees]," he continued, "as well as abandoning plans to build roadside infrastructure along the eight-kilometer part of the highway that will run through the forest."

'Real Forest'

Ivanov said that the part of the highway that would cut through the forested land to the northwest of Moscow is slated to be finished by the end of 2013. He added that the Russian government would pay 4 billion rubles ($130 million) compensation for any ecological damage the highway may cause.

Ivanov noted that new trees would be planted in the wake of the construction, turning what he termed "a landfill" into a "real forest."

In the approved plan, a total of 100 hectares of forest will be felled to make room for the highway.

The head of Russia's Transport Ministry, Igor Levitin, explained at a press conference on December 14 that the alternative plans for the highway would actually displace more people from their homes, possibly costing the government more money.

"With the existing, pre-selected route, two private homes will be demolished, while with the alternative [Route] 34 [would be demolished]," Levitin said. "In the current selected option, 100 hectares of the forest will be felled, and 90 hectares in the alternative. The cost of the construction is 51 billion [rubles] in the existing option, and [the alternative is] 48.5 billion rubles, which does not include the cost of compensation for the houses [that would have to be relocated]."

SLIDESHOW: The Khimki Forest Controversy

The committee says it will send its decision to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev for his signature.

In August, in response to a string of protests in the Russian capital, Medvedev ordered a halt to the felling of trees in Khimki Forest, a stretch of land adjoining a suburb to the northwest of Moscow. At the urging of his own party, United Russia, Medvedev tasked a government commission to discuss further possible detours as well as explore the effect the construction would have on the local ecology.

In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service after the decision was announced, Yevgenia Chirikova, the head of EcoDefense, the ecological group spearheading the protests against the highway, questioned the "legitimacy" of the committee's decision and cautioned Medvedev on siding with Ivanov and ignoring the opinion of "76 percent of the population."

"Honestly speaking, we think that the president should not hide behind the backs of Ivanov, Petrov, Sidorov, Pronkin, etc.," she said. "He should show political will and say what decision he has made. Depending on that decision, we will know on who's side he is on. [He is either] on the side of 76 percent of the population, which according to an independent survey done by Levada Center, supports the defenders of Khimki Forest, or he is on the side the corrupters."

Yevgenia Chirikova during a protest against destruction of the Khimki Forest last July

Chirikova has long campaigned for the construction of an alternative route, bypassing the forest, which she and various environmentalists have argued serves as a green belt, regulating pollution levels in the Russian capital.

Protest and discussion over the highway's construction have intensified in recent months. In July, Chirikova and hundreds of other activists camped out in the forest in an effort to stop workers from felling trees. They were eventually ousted.

Then, in August, the activists moved their protests to Moscow, staging a demonstration and rock concert that attracted approximately 2,000 people. They also rallied the support of various opposition groups and well-known Russian musicians to their cause.

Attacks On Journalists

Debate over the highway's construction has also been tied to several attacks on journalists and activists who have supported the ecologists' claims. In 2008, Mikhail Beketov, the editor in chief of a local Khimki paper, was savagely beaten outside his home. He had actively reported on the controversial highway plans. The attack left Beketov wheelchair-bound.

More recently, Konstantin Fetisov, the leader of a local liberal party and an activist with the Khimki Forest Defenders Movement, was attacked near his apartment in Khimki on November 4. His attackers have not been identified, and Fetisov remains in a coma.

Oleg Kashin, a correspondent for "Kommersant," was attacked outside his Moscow home on November 6. The attack left him with broken legs, skull damage, and fractured hands. He told police he believes his attack was connected to his coverage of the Khimki controversy, among other issues.

Ivanov seemed to suggest that there was little doubt that the plans would not be approved by Medvedev, and his press secretary commented that the president hopes that the plans approved by the committee will "minimize damage" caused to the local ecosystem.

written by Ashley Cleek and Aleksandra Saenko, with contributions from RFE/RL's Russian Service

Mikhail Beketov, the editor in chief of a Khimki newspaper and an environmental activist, was savagely beaten outside his home in 2008. He had written extensively about the Khimki protests.
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