Russia: President Medvedev suspends Khimkinskii motorway construction

Struggle must continue to save environment and to win democratic rights!

As we reported previously, Russian CWI activist, Igor Yasin, and two other CWI members, were brutally attacked by thugs on Saturday, 7 August, following a peaceful protest in the centre of Moscow over the proposed construction of a major new road through the Khimkinskii Forest, which is part of Moscow’s green belt. The French based company, Vinci, won the main contract to construct the road.

All three CWI members suffered injuries, with Igor suffering a fractured skull. Igor was released from hospital several days ago.

Last Thursday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced the ‘suspension’ of the road building. As Igor Yasin writes below, this decision was made for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the widespread opposition to the road from local residents and activists. The protests organised by CWI members and supporters internationally following the brutal attacks against Igor and other CWI members and environmental activists – including pickets of Russian embassies and protests at Vinci offices around the world – also undoubtedly had an effect on the Russian authorities and shows the importance of such solidarity actions.

For now, there is a pause in the attempts to cut down the Khimkinskii forest outside Moscow. Lat Thursday evening, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made a video announcement on his blog, in which he announced the suspension of the construction of the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway, which would run through the Khimkinskii forest, until there has been further “public and expert discussion on the question”.

This announcement followed the sensational news earlier that day that United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, had addressed the President asking him to stop the road construction.


What does this mean for the forest, for those who fought to protect it, for the wider protest movement and for the Russian authorities?

Medvedev’s decision undoubtedly marks a retreat forced on him by those who have actively campaigned against the destruction of this part of Moscow’s now critical green belt. Of course, this success was helped by the participation of well-known Russian musicians and public activists, but the performance of Yuri Shevchuk (one of Russia’s best known rock musicians) on Pushkin Square or his duet with Bono would not have gained such an echo if there was not such a huge dissatisfaction in society already. The government’s retreat is our success; it is a clear success for the local residents and activists.

[Translator’s note: Two weekend’s ago, the opposition organized a concert on Pushkin square, in central Moscow, attended by over 2,000 people, in protest at the start of the road construction. Notwithstanding attempts by the police to stop the concert (people were searched for musical instruments on the way in!) there were too many people attending to prevent the event going ahead. The musician Bono was in Russia that week for a U2 concert. He was flown specially to the Black Sea resort of Sochi to meet Medvedev. The Western media reported that Bono raised the Khimiknskii forest with Medvedev, but, it appears that Bono was so friendly with Medvedev he later admitted he had forgotten to mention the issue!]

Rejoicing at such unexpected news from above, the leader of the forest’s defenders, Evgenia Chirikova, told the press she was so happy she would now vote for the ruling party or for Medvedev himself. It is, however, far too early to celebrate the final victory in the fight to save the forest.

At the same time as the suspension of construction work was announced, it became clear that pressure on anti-fascists and opponents of the regime was being stepped up. Dozens of anti-fascists were rounded up for questioning. Around 260 youth were detained by police in the city of Zhukov, not far from Moscow, for trying to attend an anti-fascist concert. In Moscow, Lev Ponomorev, one of Russia’s best known human rights activists, was arrested at the Moscow concert and sentenced to three days in prison. His crime was to carry a Russian flag down one of Russia’s main streets on the day the government had allocated as Flag Day!

Two young anti-fascists, Alexei Gaskarov and Maxim Solovov, are still being held and face charges that could see them imprisoned for several years. This is in contrast to the lack of police action either against the hired thugs who attacked the forest camp or following the vicious attack against three CWI members in Moscow a few days later. This is despite the fact that that the Director of the sub-contracting company involved in the road building appeared to admit to the Russian press that he hired the thugs.

Ruling authorities rattled

The zig-zags of the United Russia party and President Medvedev’s retreat is a clear indication that the ruling authorities are having trouble holding things together and are worried about their falling poll ratings. Just weeks ago, ‘Young Guard’, one of the Kremlin-promoted youth groups, organized a group in support of the new motorway, and published all sorts of poison about those defending the forest. ‘Nashi’, another of these youth groups attempted to organize a provocation at the recent concert in Moscow. However, the growing pressure from below, the determination of residents and protesters, the recent heat wave and smog and the unstable character of the Russian economy have all convinced part of Russia’s elite they needed to change tact.

Moscow’s Mayor, Luzhkov, is now trying to claim he has always been opposed to building the road through the forest, although he ordered police action against the protesters. Furthermore, the construction experts originally involved in choosing a new road route in 2006 were initially given another option that went through the Molzhaninov region of the city. But that proposal was rejected because, according to the press, the project harmed the interests of the ‘Inteko’ company owned by Mayor Luzkhov’s wife, Elena Baturina. It was recently reported that Baturina is now the third richest woman in the world, having used her position to win huge building contracts from Moscow city.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this new turn of events is that it seems the “national leader" Vladimir Putin was not aware of what was happening. According to his press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, Putin was not involved in making the decision to suspend road building. Moreover, Putin stated that if there was no ‘economic basis’ for the decision, it would stand. Putin’s position was made clear later: “It’s clear that the road has to be built…it obvious that there are major transport problems in Moscow and other cities. The road between Moscow and St Petersburg is obviously needed for the economy,” he declared.

This disagreement between the two heads of state, on such a burning political question, reveals that there are problems in the ruling camp. Prime Minister Putin’s own party, United Russia, appealed over his head to the President, as if Medvedev some sort of independent judge.

Risky project

There is another important aspect to this. In the current climate of economic instability and with growing protests, it has been clear that the international finance institutions, including the European Bank, have not been keen to invest in what is seen as a risky project. The international campaign of protest which took place over the last couple of weeks has also undermined support for continuing with the road building. In this situation, the authorities had no alternative but to ask for ‘time-out’, so that passions can calm down, until the financial position improves.

But the fact that the decision to suspend the construction was taken without fully agreeing it with all the leading figures, indicates that the authorities are no longer able to keep what normally takes place behind closed doors from becoming public. This demonstrates, once again, that behind superficialities, the state machine in Russia is actually quite weak, suffering blows not only from external sources but now also from internal disputes. The colossus is standing on rotting legs.

Those who defended the forest won a victory on 26th August, but we should not give up the struggle. There have already been decisions to suspend this construction before but as things changed, construction has begun anew.

The Khimkinskii forest has already suffered great damage, but if construction continues, the existence of this nature zone will completely cease. If it is decided to go ahead with an alternative route, the damage already done to Khimkinskii will serve to remind everyone of the corruption and authoritarianism in Russia and of the links between the authorities and big business.

In the past six weeks, activists have been treated to such degrees of repression, pressure and corruption by the bureaucrats and big building sharks that it is difficult to believe that the decision to suspend building will make any difference.

The forest fires in Russia over the summer have demonstrated how the state apparatus is beginning to collapse, the forestry system is in ruins and even the much-praised ‘Ministry of Emergency Situations’ was unable to stop the fires, secure people and minimize the losses.

Therefore the gesture from above concerning Khimkinskii will not save the health of the environment nor will it assure democratic rights and freedoms. To win those objectives, we need to continue the struggle.

The Khimkinskii forest campaign is an important part of the developing struggle. But the only guarantee of victory in this struggle is to develop opposition on a wider front, to fight corruption, for genuine democracy and for just wages and conditions at work. Instead of simply pressurizing the authorities, we need to take things into our own hands, through self-organization and local self-management, control and accountability, so that a proper planned economy can be developed, based on democratic, public ownership.

Only by completely changing the system can we ensure that the state of the environment will be decided in the interests of the majority, and we can preserve the right for forests and clean air for future generations.

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August 2010