Eco-wars in the Moscow region

Surrounded by scrap yards, factories, and paradoxically, one of the most abundant forests of the Moscow region, the town of Khimki has become the backdrop for an ecological drama.

Journalists, activists, the local authorities, and of course, members of the public are entangled in a failure to resolve a burning issue: whether to build an intercity road through the forest.

If the project is completed according to its current blueprint, the forest, which is so appreciated by local residents, will be razed to the ground.

This became the subject of significant protest and unrest: many claim that the forest is the only thing that keeps Khimki away from an ecological catastrophe.

The confrontation, which has been on the way for over two years, has caused major civil unrest within this community – which has never been a very quiet one. Murders, alleged acts of violence, and protests on the verge of rioting, have all entered the Khimki scene and have made it a focal point for media attention.

The Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway, as planned, would cost the Khimki forest roughly six kilometers across. This, according to ecologists working in the area, would eventually lead to the disappearance of the forest as a whole.

“The Moscow City Administration of Specifically Guarded Natural Territories strongly disagrees with the plans to construct the Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway through the Khimki forest park, as it would cause irreversible damage to the local ecosystem,” representatives of the administration told Interfax.

However, the Russian National Engineering Supervision disagrees with these insinuations. Having conducted an ecological examination of the area, they have determined that:

“The analysis of the potential ecological repercussions of the construction and use of the motorway has shown that conducting the works planned will not create irreversible damage to the environment”.

Drawn in blood

Several journalists who supported the fight to keep the Khimki forest alive have suffered from crimes which are, some say, related to their ecological concerns.

An editor of the 'Grazhdanskoe Soglasye' (Civil Agreement) opposition newspaper, Sergey Potazanov, died after a violent street attack on the 2nd of April, 2009. The official police version is that his death came as a result of intoxication.

The police department, which is investigating Sergey Potazanov’s death has pointed out that he was hospitalized in a state of alcoholic intoxication two days before the incidents. The claims are being verified, but it will, most likely, lead to the criminal case being dropped.

His family, friends, and colleagues, however, are of a different opinion.

Anatoly Yurov, editor-in-chief at the deceased’s newspaper, said while speaking to RBC Daily:

“Potazanov was severely beaten up at the entrance to his apartment building. He was disabled, missing his left arm, and could not defend himself physically”.

Mikhail Beketov, the editor-in-chief of the 'Khimkinskaya Pravda' (Truth of Khimki) local newspaper, was forced to step down from his position after a similar attack in November 2008. He received a severe head injury, several fractures, and numerous bruises after being assaulted near his home. The attack took place in the light of day.

Beketov now states that he will not take up his editor-in-chief position after leaving the hospital, because he believes the job to be too dangerous.

The common ground between the two attacked news workers? Their support for saving the Khimki forest.

Both of them wrote articles supporting the public protest groups, and unveiling facts about the detrimental effects on the ecology that the motorway would have. They also expressed a lack of faith in the local government, and made efforts to highlight its shortcomings.

Nevertheless, the investigation and the local police refuse to make any links between the increase in the number of attacks on journalists, and the Khimki forest issue.

These are not the only cases of assault on journalists in Khimki in the last months. Anatoly Yurov says that he himself recently suffered numerous knife injuries, while his secretary received a concussion.

The local administration, however, has time and time again denied any governmental interest in the attacks on the ecologically pro-active journalists. It also pointed out that it is unaware of who may be interested in conducting such attacks.

Public outcry

When the blueprint was leaked to the public, local residents were shocked to find out the truth behind the road project. However, a public announcement on the issue was never made. Residents came across the truth through indirect clues.

As the Russian weekly “Russkiy Reporter” depicts, Evgenya Chirikova discovered the local administration's plans while walking through the forest with her new-born child. She saw equidistant red marks on the tree trunks.

Nurturing suspicions, she looked up projects in the area on a governmental website, and was shocked to find out that the Khimki forest was completely absent on the blueprints.

The forest, also, had been the only reason why Evgenya and her family moved to Khimki from Moscow. Although the area isn’t particularly well off, and the commute to work takes Evgenya and her husband a long time every morning, it has access to abundant natural beauties, something enjoyed by the family.

Chirikova’s fight to save the Khimki forest has taken her from a quiet career in the building planning industry, to running for mayor of the city. The central issue of her campaign – to build the Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway around the forest, and not through it.

It is also Chirikova who organized an action group in the local area which protested against the road works. Organizing demonstrations, handing out leaflets, writing petitions to the local and regional government – they did it all, but to no avail. Although not actively pursued, the motorway project was never scrapped.

Rigged elections?

Evgenya Chirikova’s election campaign ended with no success. She came third, gathering just over 15% of the vote. Yet, her supporters and some independent observers are convinced that some serious infringements took place over the course of the mayoral elections.

The incumbent mayor received the majority of the votes. However, Chirikova and her supporters see this as a deliberate attempt to push their campaign to save the forest to the fringe and eventually wipe it out.

The mayoral candidate talked about some of her suspicions of election infringements to Interfax:

“By the law, if the number of votes cast ahead of schedule surpasses 1%, the election results are subject to verification. In some areas of the city, this number was as high as 10% without any verification taking place."

Chirikova and her supporters have already filed a complaint to the prosecutor’s office. Yet, the case is taking a slow turn, without speeding up the movement’s striving to save the forest.

Bleak future?

Some local residents already report asthmatic tendencies in their children, and doctors point out that the area’s ecology is to blame. With a high level of pollution, it is the forest which, some say, keeps the city inhabitable.

Evgenya Chirikova

The movement to save the forest is diverse, its members ranging from housewives, to pro-active students, to scientists, musicians, and artists from the area. The purpose which unites them is simple: to provide a healthy living environment for themselves and their children.

Yet, as long as the project to raze the forest doesn’t appear to breach any city planning regulations, their struggles come to no avail. And, with such an increase of violence in the area, it is unsurprising that some members of the movement are scared:

“I am scared. But what can I do? Lock myself up in my apartment, turn on a soap opera, and pretend that it doesn’t concern me? I can’t do that!” Elena Stepanova, an accountant, and a member of the action group told “Russkiy Reporter”.

Local authorities point out that President Medvedev has recently amended the Russian Forest Code, confirming that the building of the Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway is entirely legal, making opposition to it virtually futile, even according to Evgenya Chirikova.

RT asked Valentina Skobeleva, the head of the Khimki department for media relations, to provide its official stance on the forest situation. She, however, refused to comment.

And so, through fear, violence, and deaf ears turned towards them, residents of Khimki keep up their struggle to maintain the wholeness of their forest.

Anna Bogdanova, RT