Fate of embattled Khimki forest still unclear as Public Chamber hearing yields no decision and public remains split over the continued tangle

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The campaign to save an old oak forest in Khimki, near the Russian capital, from clear-cutting and subsequent construction of a 100-metre-wide Moscow-St. Petersburg highway, started as a loosely organised grassroots movement as long back as five years ago and has seen a number of bitter moments, such as the savage beating of a local investigative journalist for his involvement in the campaign and corruption exposes in his paper. But the situation aggravated to a boiling point over this past summer, when the logging resumed.

In late last July a camp set up by environmentalists in the forest to try and stop the felling was brutally attacked by unknown masked youths, and the conflict then escalated to a level of an open stand-off between the activists and the authorities – one that also involved harassment and intimidation at the hands of the police, and the attention from both Russian federal and international media (please also see Bellona’s extended coverage of the conflict).

The campaign peaked in the following weeks in an appeal addressed by Bellona and the activists to the international community and the higher state authorities in Russia, a massive rally at a rock concert in Moscow, which featured an appearance by Bono – and, finally, a decision by the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to halt construction works in Khimki temporarily, pending further analysis.

In a video blog posted on his Kremlin website, Medvedev said that building the road will be suspended to allow “extra public and expert discussions.” He added that his decision was spurred by the “high public resonance” of the issue.

The discussion at the Public Chamber last week, which was made available in live streaming – and in meeting records – on the Internet, was exactly the result of Medvedev’s instruction¸ issued on August 26, to look extensively into the matter.

But though Medvedev’s intervention may have given the activists some hope that the Khimki forest was now out of the woods, the hearing, though it elicited certain surprising opinions, indicates the fate of the Khimki forest remains obscure for the foreseeable future.

In particular, Public Chamber members decided the state should conduct a thorough ecological-impact and economic-feasibility study on all the various routes suggested for the future highway, and then revisit the issue at a Chamber Council meeting, where a resolution on the matter would hopefully be adopted, with relevant recommendations by the members.

Shortly after this non-verdict, on September 21, a company called Teplotekhnik – the project contractor that was responsible for the felling works in the forest – brought legal action against the defenders of the Khimki forest, led by Yevgenia Chirikova, demanding RUR 8 million in damages incurred by downtime and other expenses.

The highway project: The transport dilemma

At issue is the construction of a toll highway intended to double traffic capacity for an already existing highway, called Leningradskoye Highway (Leningradka), which no longer provides the needed throughput. Project owners insist the new road will connect the two Russian capitals by the shortest route possible. It is also to skirt very closely the Moscow international airport of Sheremetyevo.

The main argument, however, centres on the hope that the future road will alleviate the terrible traffic jams along the connection between Khimki and downtown Moscow, something that Muscovites have in the recent years been referring to as a “traffic collapse.”

Last July, a Bloomberg report said “Moscow drivers suffer the longest traffic jams of major cities,” with an average Muscovite spending two and a half hours stuck in traffic at least once in the last three years. The national air carrier Aeroflot is losing $495,440 a day, the report said, owing to missed flights caused by traffic problems on the way to and from Sheremetyevo.

According to Anatoly Chabunin, head of the Russian Ministry of Transport’s Federal Highway Agency, or Avtodor, six route options had been reviewed, and the one chosen was deemed the best one. Chabunin’s presentation was first on the Public Chamber meeting’s agenda.

Unfortunately, a 43-kilometre section of the planned toll road is also to cut a complicated loop through the forest – thus slicing it into isolated sections that environmentalists believe would subsequently guarantee its fast demise. The ecological integrity of the forest would be destroyed, environmentalists say. This is what initially sparked the long-standing conflict between those behind the project and the forest’s defenders.

At the hearing, Chirikova said that “the defenders of the Khimki forest are concerned about finding a solution to the transport problems, but the suggested route is unacceptable. The option in question does not solve any transport problems: The road is curved and ends in a T-shaped crossing with the Moscow Beltway,” which may slow down traffic considerably and cause the same traffic jams the road is meant to do away with.

“There is no lobbying of any particular project from our side,” Chirikova said. “It makes sense to use the territory of the roads already built, or build tunnels and overpasses.”

The financial complications

The various money issues – the problem of funds already invested, the cited prices for land and timber, and possible payouts to building owners, should any houses need to be razed – further complicate the situation. According to Chabunin, if investors were now to quit the project, a strain to compensate for the loss of RUR 30 billion would be put on the state budget, meaning that construction of other roads would have to be forgone.

But Mikhail Blinkin, from the Scientific Research Institute for Transport and Public Road System, believes this is a stretch.

The Russian business daily Kommersant quotes Blinkin as saying that project documents show 95 percent of the funds come from either the state coffers or via state-guaranteed credits by state-affiliated banks, leaving only a few percent to be provided by foreign capital.

Environmentalists believe that, the damages incurred by the loss of the forest aside, the chosen route is not the shortest or the cheapest to begin with. They dispute the other side’s claims that alternative routes – or widening the Leningradka – are either technologically too challenging or will lead to the demolition of private houses and shopping malls and exorbitantly hefty payouts to building owners.

According to another Russian business daily, Vedomosti, the board of directors of the developer company includes a personal friend of Russia’ Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a fact that has led to broad speculations on the origin of the substantial resources – including the involvement of law enforcement agencies – used by the business interests and the state authorities in opposing the efforts to save the forest.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) also points out a possible connection between the chosen route and the fact that Russia’s Minister of Transport Igor Levitin is the board chairman of Sheremetyevo Airport, which will lie at a very short distance from the road, should it be built according to current plans.

During the Public Chamber meeting, Yelena Panfilova, who heads the anti-corruption studies centre Transparency International Russia, said last April her organisation had examined the project documentation for any vulnerabilities that might indicate the risk it was inviting potential corrupt practices.

“The documents that the decision was based on to assign certain plots of the Khimki forest for road construction cannot be deemed sufficient; there are certain dubious documents there…,” Panfilova said. “That the road needs to be built is no cause for doubt, but we have to make a choice: Either we solve the commercial problems of Sheremetyevo Airport, or the problems that Khimki residents are suffering from.”

The ecological concerns

Chabunin said at the hearing that a number of environmental protection measures had also been included in the project, to the tune of over RUR 3 billion, including the forestation of 500 hectares in a nearby area of Molzhaninovo to compensate for the trees that would be lost.

“Thus, the main problem that the environmentalists are worried about is solved – a protective zone has been created for the town of Khimki, with no possibility of urban development in this zone allowed in the future,” Chabunin said.

The total area to be cleared in the forest, according to project plans, is around 95 hectares. So far, 40 hectares have been cleared, say latest reports, and 144 hectares of land has been re-zoned for other land management uses in state rosters, losing its status as forest areas. One of the main questions in the whole controversy has been whether the estimated nine percent that the forest will lose is really worth fighting so dearly for.

In an appearance on Echo Moskvy, the popular Russian liberal radio station, last Wednesday Chirikova said this nine percent was crucial to the forest’s survival.

“The route chosen today does not just destroy nine percent of [the] forest – it destroys it whole… There is this term, ‘ecosystem’ – much like the notion of an organism as a whole… So what if you cut nine percent out of a human body? It’s nothing. But it all depends on where we’ve taken it. If we took it from the heart, the chance of survival is very small,” she said.  

Ecologists say the Khimki forest, which is part of Moscow’s forest belt, serves as a pollution shield for the heavily industrialised area, as it produces 18,000 tonnes of oxygen a year and keeps at bay the traffic exhaust coming from other heavily used transport routes, as well as the noise and pollutants emitted by a number of production facilities and the airport of Sheremetyevo.

Greenpeace Russia’s Alexei Yaroshenko has been quoted as saying in the press that if the felling stopped now, and an alternative route were settled on, it would still be possible to restore the forest.

But project supporters argue the Khimki forest may not be as precious as the ecologists are trying to paint it.

Vedomosti quotes Khimki Housing Cooperative chairman Vladimir Kharitonov as saying “Khimki residents are dying because of the traffic overload on Leningradka, because their lungs are being filled with exhaust.”

The project’s opponents counter that tree felling does not improve the ecological situation in the region anyway, and new planting in other areas does not compensate for an old oak forest.

“It is furthermore not clear that Molzhaninovo has the necessary 500 hectares for forestation,” said WWF Russia’s Yevgeny Shvarts, according to a Vedomosti report. “It is not by chance that an alternative route that would have cut through Molzhaninovo was rejected – a golf club is planned for that area.”

Speculations continue as to why project developers insist on the only option they have chosen and why no agreement has yet been worked out on a viable alternative.

In her Wednesday appearance on Echo Moskvy, Chirikova said:

“There is just this decision that woodlands near Moscow have not been bringing any profit for a long time. And there are plans as well to re-zone them as urban development lands. We are fighting against that, and we’re fighting to have a normal road.

“I want to stop the violations of the federal law which says if there are alternative routes to a road project then re-zoning forest lands is forbidden.”

At the Public Chamber meeting, WWF Russia Director Igor Chestin said: “We need to look at the experience of solving this kind of problems in developed nations, where construction of multi-level roads has been used for a long time. This option has not even been considered.”

Bellona’s Alexander Nikitin agrees that there must be ways for the highway to bypass the forest, such as by building a tunnel that would limit the damage done to the lands and the environment. He points out such examples as the construction of a high-speed railroad in Norway, where this solution was implemented.

The Public Chamber and member opinions

The Public Chamber (or Civic Chamber, as the entity refers to itself on its official website) – of whose 126 members, 42 are selected by a presidential decree, with 42 more then selected by these members from national public organisations, and the remaining one-third selected by the previous 84 members from regional public organisations – comprises various Russian dignitaries with background in culture, science, public service, or sports, all thought to have shown distinguished merit for the state and society.

The entity, much like many smaller public chambers functioning across Russia’s regions, plays a role similar to an oversight committee, analyzing draft legislation and monitoring the activities of the parliament and the executive power, and has purely consultative powers.

The Chamber, called into existence by Medvedev’s predecessor, the then-president Putin to promote a constructive dialogue between civil activists and the government, has also enjoyed a dubious reputation among Russian human rights defenders, who have called it a “dummy of civil society.”

After hearing both sides of the conflict, the 97 participants of the September meeting on the Khimki forest, were eventually unable to come to a decision.

The Chamber’s deputy secretary, Mikhail Ostrovsky, said at least one thing was clear to him – that “certain changes needed to be introduced into construction regulations and rules related to the construction of roads. Basically, everybody has agreed on that.”

“It is clear that the road must be built,” Ostrovsky said. “And it must be built as soon as possible, because the ecological harm that today’s situation with the [existing] roads is doing exceeds the scope of the disaster that may be caused by clearing part of the forest.”

But in Ostrovsky’s opinion, an independent public environmental impact study must be conducted as well, one that has not been done before.

“There have been discussions, and arguments… I can tell you honestly, I’ve been hearing different opinions here, and I can’t even imagine what decision should be made… I am somewhat at a loss,” the well-known lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said during the meeting.

Head of the Chamber’s Institute for the Promotion of Innovations, Vyacheslav Glazychev, himself a land-use planning specialist, said: “What stands right out is the uneven representation of the route options: One has been thoroughly worked out, the other ones have been presented in […] sketchy outlines only. The option of widening the Leningradskoye Highway has not been assessed.”

“We cannot make the decision now, it has to be postponed another two or three months,” he added.

He also said this was the first time the key people involved in the dispute – including the transport minister Levitin – were present for a discussion.

Others spoke either in defence or against the chosen route – and some pointed out the conflict’s origins lie in the highly criticised adoption of the Forest Code, which the Chamber spoke against, and the abolishment of the earlier obligatory state environmental impact evaluations.

“The chickens have finally come home to roost,” one member said.

Public sentiments

The summer stand-offs have propelled the Khimki controversy to a whole new level, making it a highly disputed political issue. Allegations have been levied against Chirikova and her movement that the campaign was a trumped-up issue meant as a PR trick to attract media attention and raise Chirikova’s own status.

On the programme “The People Vs…” on Echo Moskvy last Wednesday, Chirikova had to withstand a barrage of critically-toned questions from the audience, including those with background in ecology, road construction, and even public activism. Some questioned her ecological expertise and others had bones to pick regarding the campaign and Chirikova’s real or purported political affiliations.

Most were concerned with the urgent need to have the road built, and Chirikova said that being a motorist herself, she completely supported the sentiment, and had been waiting for a better road for ten years since she had become a Khimki resident. Still, the flaws in the chosen project defeat the whole purpose, she said.

She also tried to explain her position was based on expert assessments, which she cited.

In an atmosphere wrought with suspicion and mutual accusations, public sentiments remain hard to gauge, including those among Khimki residents.

The results of a poll presented at the hearing by the Russian Public Opinion Research Centre said two-thirds of Moscow and Moscow Region residents were sympathetic with the forest defenders’ campaign, but only 27 percent spoke in favour of re-routing the road. Eighty percent said the traffic crisis had to be solved immediately.

Yet, the results of two other surveys, conducted by Levada Centre and the job search website Superjob – Chirikova cited these polls at the hearing – attest to the opposite: Seventy-three percent and 67 percent of those polled, respectively, said they were against building the road through the forest.

At the Public Chamber hearing, Khimki Housing Cooperative chairman Kharitonov said 17,000 signatures of residents asking to continue with the construction had been collected in the past two months. He passed them over to the Chamber members.

“These are real signatures, they have not been bought. Our main argument: The road will improve the quality of life for Khimki residents. The work of the emergency services and firefighters will normalise, children will stop being late for school. Re-routing the road will exacerbate the situation,” Kharitonov said.

It all might come down a conflict of two legitimate public concerns that the public itself may be struggling with seeing as equal.

“My doubts are regarding [a situation] where the private interests of several dozen, hundreds of people who want to […] live in this forest, or walk in this forest, are being set against the interests of thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of those who need this road,” one of the “People Vs…” participants said.

Yet, Chirikova’s campaign enjoyed unprecedented public support this summer, something that may well have triggered President Medvedev’s intervention and the Public Chamber hearing last week.

The lawsuit

While the fate of the Khimki forest is being decided, Chirikova and at least ten other activists from her movement will have to attend court as co-defendants in a lawsuit brought against them this week. The plaintiff, Teplotekhnik, claims it has incurred financial losses as a result of the protesters’ actions and the halted clear-cutting in the forest.

The St. Petersburg-based Environmental Rights Centre Bellona’s legal counsel Nina Popravko represents the interests of the Khimki forest defenders in the case. She argues Teplotekhnik’s claims have no merit since the law permits citizens to express their opinions.

Andrei Margulyov from the Union of Ecological Non-Governmental Organisations said to Kommersant a motion to dismiss will be filed by the defense, arguing that the plaintiff has no basis for a case to begin with as “the contract [for construction works] attached by Teplotekhnik to its claim expired on December 31, 2009.”

In comments given to Kommersant, Chirikova said one of the co-defendants named in the suit was a journalist who had sustained injuries during the confrontations in the forest this summer.

She also speculated whether “President Medvedev could be expected as a co-defendant, since he was the one who ordered the halt on the clear-cutting.”

Natalya Nesterenko and Alexander Shurshev contributed to this report.

Maria Kaminskaya