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Government’s commission approves highway project through Khimki Forest

The highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg will go through Khimki Forest, despite environmental concerns. On Tuesday, the government’s commission approved the plan and sent it to the president.

Many fear the planned highway may result in the destruction of a forest park in the town of Khimki. After months of protests of ecology activists over the controversial project, the authorities seem to have at last decided to give the green light to the construction of a new highway. An eight-kilometer section will go through the Khimki Forest.

The commission will send an appropriate report to President Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said on Tuesday after a session of the government’s transport and communications commission.

“We have made a decision to build this highway,” he told a news conference. The construction will start as soon as the plan is approved by the president, he noted.

According to Ivanov, the section of the highway in the forest will be equipped with noise barriers. No road infrastructure will be constructed along the entire section. It will just be a highway, with barriers and passages built under the road for wild animals, he stressed.

Environmental activists had earlier urged the authorities to consider alternative routes. The controversial issue has sparked mass protests against the government’s plan.

In August, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered to halt the construction and conduct an additional evaluation of the project. He cited opinions of environmentalists, political parties and expert circles. Given “such a number of appeals,” the president said additional public and expert discussions were necessary. About 60 hectares of the forest had already been logged by that time.

Last week, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered the Ministries of Transport and Natural Resources to conduct an additional assessment of the project. The decision on the construction would be based on that evaluation, he said.

Russian media recently reported that the decision had already been made to construct the road through the forest. Evgenia Chirikova, the leader of the Movement for the Protection of Khimki Forest, described the information as “a provocation.”

Russia’s human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin has called upon the environmentalists “to be tolerant.” He said a compromise was needed as Russia “must have both forests and roads.” The authorities have the right to put into practice whatever decision they make, the ombudsman said. According to him, “the active minority” could explain their argument during public discussions.

Putin earlier said the construction of the road should be continued due to economic factors. However, he also stressed the need to take “ecological concerns” into account. In November 2009, the prime minister signed a decree converting the Khimki Forest to land for transport. The move made it possible to start the construction work.

However, today’s decision made by the government’s commission may be contested in the courts. The defenders of the forest will file suits if the decision “is approved by the president,” Chirikova told Interfax on Tuesday. One lawsuit is already being considered by the European Court of Human Rights, she said.