The battle to save an old growth forest outside of Moscow has reached its endpoint. Environmental activists have been fighting for years to stop the construction of a highway that would cut through the once protected green belt. But in recent days clashes between peaceful protesters and Khimki police and state security services have escalated. On Thursday at least two activists were beaten by armed thugs. "We were able to stop the logging, but some thugs beat two of our activists," Yevgenia Chirikova, the leader of the Defend Khimki movement, told the Moscow Times. On Sunday a peaceful demonstration was broken up by law enforcement officials and some 30 activists, including Chirikova, were detained.
The crackdown comes just days after Chirikova returned from Paris where she delivered a petition to the French construction company, Vinci, which has signed the contract to build the highway and operate the toll road for at least the next thirty years. Since its inception the project, known as the Moscow St. Petersburg Motorway, has been marred by brutal attacks against journalists investigating the issue and activists calling for greater transparency. Last year, after unusually large public protests, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for a review of the planned route. There was some hope that the forest might be spared. A few months later, however, the government announced that the development would commence sometime this year.
Fearing that they had exhausted their options within Russia environmental activists turned their attention to Vinci, one of Europe’s largest corporations. Vinci is the only remaining European player involved in the controversial project: the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank have withdrawn their support. A report released last week by Bankwatch Network and the Defend Khimki Movement reveals that the North West Concession Company (NWCC)—a joint venture between Vinci and several Russian construction and engineering firms—includes a long-time friend of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and a number of offshore investment firms whose shareholders are largely unknown (in 2009 Putin signed a decree that effectively altered the forest’s protected status to allow for “transport and infrastructure”).
“The Russian public deserves answers to the questions raised by the research before it considers going any further with the project”, said Mikhail Matveev of the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest. “The government must re-examine its choice of concessionaire, and disclose the concession agreement and whole ownership structure of the company, if this project is to bring benefits to anyone other than the company owners.”
Vinci has shown no interest in reconsidering its involvement in the project and, at its annual shareholders meeting last week, CEO Xavier Huillard said that the company bears no responsibility for the route selection or land acquisition.