Russian activists and journalists have survived beatings, arrests and intimidation during our campaign to save one of Moscow's last old-growth forests from destruction. Our movement to reroute the toll highway that would cut through Khimki Forest has become Russia's most inspiring and largest activist movements in a long time.
It is about more than just a forest.
We are fighting a legacy of corruption and bribery among government officials, law enforcement and industry that has allowed this project to move forward. Last year, after thousands of citizens protested in Moscow's center, we won a huge victory when President Dmitry Medvedev temporarily halted construction. One of our lead organizers, Yevgenia Chirikova, is a mother of two who lives in Khimki and who has bravely spearheaded this campaign since 2007 at direct risk to her family's safety.
Now construction is set to begin again.
As soon as this month, the French multinational construction company Vinci is authorized to begin the first phase of the highway.
This is the best chance for us to stop the project before construction crews arrive. We are turning to you to increase our international support.
Since the Russian government has failed us, we are targeting Vinci, which could make a huge profit from this project. It is the only Western company involved in the construction.
We are asking Vinci to end its involvement in the Moscow to St. Petersburg highway until an alternative route that spares Khimki Forest is selected.
The first section of the Moscow - St Petersburg PPP toll motorway project encompasses the construction of 43 km of motorway. The proposed highway would start at the MKAD (Moscow Ring Road) at km 15 of the Moscow to St Petersburg highway (total length 650 km) and finish at its 58th km. The project would also include building seven major interchanges, 37 bridges, and a toll collection system. Read more.
The construction of this highway is set to cut through the Moscow area's last old-growth forest, the Khimki forest. Khimki Forest is a protected natural area with rich wildlife including relic oak groves and elks, boars and other wild animals. The forest is also extremely important to local people living in this polluted and densely populated region. Local people have come together to oppose the currently planned routing of the road as the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest."
Current status (May 16, 2011)
In May 2011 the Russian government is due to sign a new agreement with the concession company NWCC. This is the concession company to which the Russian government will pay EUR 1.5 billion over the course of the 30-year contract. The financial close for the project took place in April 2010.
Since mid-April 2011 tree-felling in the forest has resumed after having previously been halted by President Medvedev in August 2010. The company carrying out the work has not been able to show any permits for tree-felling when demanded by local people so they have been attempting to physically block the works.
Regardless of various forms of opposition and concern, the project continues to be pushed forward. The more the project is pushed, however, the more it is generating strong opposition against the routing through Khimki Forest.
2004 - A decision was taken on building the Moscow - St. Petersburg toll motorway
2005 - Option 3 (passing through Khimki Forest, see map below) was chosen behind closed doors. Dummy Public Hearings were arranged - as it was found out later, on a different project - the MRAR-Sheremetyevo-3 road. People only found out at the hearing itself where they could read the environmental impact study, so they could not examine it beforehand.
2006 - the entire territory of the protected Khimki Forest park was reserved for the placement of the motorway as well as of "objects of transport infrastructure and capital construction"
2007 - Surveying works were carried out in the forest park. This was the first time that local people became aware of the project. A popular movement to defend Khimki Forest was formed by locals. The new Forest Code forbade any construction works in forest parks - so any works on route Option 3 became completely illegal.
2008 - The first public rallies and other manifestations of public discontent took place. An attempt was made to kill local journalist Mikhail Beketov who wrote a lot about the problem. Preliminary works on the project still went ahead despite the legal ban.
2009 - New public hearings showed a strongly negative public attitude toward the routing, but these results were completely disregarded. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Putin changed the categorization of Khimki forest to allow the construction of the motorway. A bill was passed that lifted the constraints on construction works in forest parks - but only if no alternative options are available, which is not true in this case. Activists started to discuss the problem with representatives of the EBRD and EIB. A meeting with EBRD's Board of Directors took place in Moscow. The EBRD promised to demand that the concessionaire would ensure a "high level of public involvement" as a mandatory condition of the EBRD's participation in the project.
This project has several social impacts attached to it. Some of these issues include:
- Direct impact on one of the few remaining natural public spaces in the Moscow area and therefore on the quality of life of the Khimki residents
- Insecurity and disempowerment of civil society dashes the remaining trust of the dedicated part of society in governmental institutions and splits society
- Disrespect of major public interests: According to a poll by the Levada Center in September 2010, 76% of Khimki residents are against the felling of Khimki Forest. Another poll in August 2010 showed that 67 percent of Muscovites oppose sacrificing the Khimki Forest near Moscow for the construction of the new road.
The 43-kilometer road section will slice through the heart of Khimki Forest, located between Moscow City and the Sheremetyevo airport. The Khimki Forest park is a protected natural area of about 1600 hectares with very rich wildlife including relic oak groves and is a natural habitat for elks, boars and other animals. The Khimki forest has existed in its current size since at least the end of XVIII century, and is classed as an old-growth forest. According to Russian Federal laws, Forest Parks are not to be used for anything other than recreation. It is an important natural recreation area for people living in the north of Moscow.
A range of crimes, including assaults resulting in permanent invalidity, attempted murder, beatings and robberies committed against members of the Movement to Defend Khimki forest in the last 3 years still remain uninvestigated.
Instead of carrying out their duties of law enforcement, police are acting in a lawless way against activists. Detained activists who try to stop illegal forest cutting report violations of their rights and arbitrary treatment by the police, including denial of access to lawyers.
Among the various forms of pressure put on activists against the routing, in February 2011 the State Guardianship and Khimki Police tried to launch a procedure to deprive Evgenia Chirikova of her children. A printed unsigned paper allegedly authored by her neighbours about Chirikova's "cruelty" toward the children was used as a pretext. The first check showed that the neighbours did not write the paper, and they denounced all the allegations in it. Nevertheless, next day the guardianship still tried to prosecute Evgenia. Calls and petitions from outraged people have apparently made them to stop the attempt. Nevertheless, Khimki police tried to enter Chirikova's apartment again on February 27 and March 1.
Also in February 2011 Alla Chernishova, editor of the Movement's website, was arrested by Khimki police and taken to the police station together with her 4 and 6 year old children. She was falsely accused of planting a 'dummy bomb' at the site of the forest works and subjected to an extensive interrogation for several hours. (The 'dummy bomb' has previously been used as an excuse not to allow a public demonstration to take place at the site). She was treated in a very rude manner, policemen threatened to deprive her of her children and to imprison her. She was finally released without charge.
The project has been examined by Transparency International, who concluded that the project shows signs of corruption in three areas:
- Loose interpretation of the law on changing the status of forest land, without clear criteria.
- The low level of transparency in the project and conflicting information in different official documents.
- The conflict of interests of Russian transport Minister Igor Levitin and former head of the Federal Agency Roads of Russia, Oleg Shakhov, who in 2009 took up a post as CEO at the Giprodor Research Institute which was engaged in survey work for the project.
- The Khimki forest issue is a precedent case in Russia going beyond forest protection - it is equally important for the protection of the environment and for the development of civil society and respect of human rights in Russia.
- The construction of the toll motorway through Khimki forest has become a symbol of corruption, lawlessness and bad governance which undermines the rule of law in Russia and dashes the remaining trust of the dedicated part of society in governmental institutions and splits society.