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An Unlikely Hero

By Roland Oliphant Russia Profile 08/17/2010

Ranged Against the Moscow Region Authorities and Abandoned by the Kremlin, Will the Beleaguered Khimki Forest Defenders Find a Savior in Yuri Luzhkov?

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has been blamed for the brutal suppression of opposition protests, sued into silence anyone who dares to suggest his billionaire construction tycoon wife might have benefitted from his position, and has been roundly condemned for vacationing during Moscow’s recent smog crisis. But he may be the Khimki forest defenders’ best hope.

On Monday evening about 100 people gathered at the Chistie Prudy metro station. These are the most civil of society movements in Russia today – the defenders of the Khimki forest, a coalition of Khimki residents and environmental activists determined to stop the forest clearing for a new highway to St. Petersburg that began near the Moscow suburb in July.

With the “direct action” part of their campaign thwarted – campers were evicted from the forest by police last month, and the perimeter is now closely patrolled – the forest defenders have turned their attention to the “hearts and minds offensive.” “Our main strategy now is raising awareness in society, and especially in international society,” said Andrei Margulev, a spokesman for the movement.

Harnessing the fear of natural disasters unleashed by this summer’s forest fires may help. “With the problem of the Khimki forest we see the problems of all the Russian forests, which are now burning,” as one speaker told the crowd. Many at yesterday’s rally wore the number “67” daubed on their faces in felt tip. “This is the percentage of Muscovites who were against the logging in a survey conducted by the SuperJob.ru Web site,” explained Yevgenia Chirikova, the group’s leader and organizer. The aim now is to gather tens of thousands of signatures to show just how far public opinion is against the new road. “Because the majority of Russians think you can’t destroy forests when there’s an alternative.”

The  focus on winning public support will be spearheaded with a concert cum rally on Moscow’s Pushkin square on Sunday afternoon, featuring the band DDT, whose lead singer Yuri Shevchuk already recorded a message of support for the forest defenders in July. But organization of the event has been marred by confusion. Noize MC, the rapper whose vitriolic anti-police tirades earned him ten days in prison earlier this month, has denied any connection to the event despite his name appearing on flyers.

But while many Muscovites may be sympathetic to the forest defenders’ cause, few believe they can change anything. When the same respondents were asked whether they thought the activists had a chance of stopping the road, 75 percent said “no” – citing public passivity and the powerlessness of anyone to overturn a decision already made by Russian officials.

Potential allies

But what if they could get Russian officials on their side? Granted, the Moscow Region authorities are firmly behind the project and have banned the protestors from demonstrating in Khimki itself. And the time-honored tradition of appealing to the federal authorities in the Kremlin and the White House was torpedoed when Vladimir Putin’s spokesman said on July 29 that the construction was legal and should therefore go ahead. But one powerbroker has not put his cards on the table yet – the one Moscow’s City Hall.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has not come out openly to back the protestors, but he has long been rumored to have clashed with Regional Governor Boris Gromov over the issue. In 2006 the city administration’s Natural Resources Department issued a report that the route would “harm forest resources on a large scale” and that “the authors of the plan have made no effort to minimize the damage to the forest park.” In 2007 Luzhkov ally Oleg Mitvol, then deputy head of the Russia’s environmental watchdog and now prefect of Moscow’s Northern District, which abuts Khimki, declared the project illegal. In December 2008 Mitvol joined a demonstration decrying the assault on Mikhail Beketov, the owner and editor of the Khimkinskaya Pravda who was beaten senseless in November that year after writing a series of articles critical of the road plans. Later, as activists like to point out, the mayor backed an alternative route that would have taken the road to the northeast of the forest, closer to the town of Lobnya.

“There was a clash between the city and regional authorities from the very beginning,” asserted Nikolai Petrov, a regional affairs expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Mitvol’s and the Natural Resources Department’s involvement was widely thought to indicate “that there was a kind of business dispute between the city and regional authorities regarding the route,” said Petrov.

That dispute has not quite broken into the open, but the decision to grant permission for the concert on Pushkin Square on Sunday looks “like a continuation of the exchange of rushed statements between Gromov and Luzhkov,” said Petrov. Luzhkov has also allowed the protestors to rally at Chistie Prudy when the regional authorities did not allow them to rally in Khimki – a small but not insignificant gesture from a man who has brutally cracked down on opposition protests on Triumfalnaya Square this year.

A pantomime villain for anti-corruption campaigners, Luzhkov would make a strange bedfellow for those who blame unscrupulous officials for most of their woes. But he would be a powerful backer, and defender spokesman Margulev confirmed that the movement hopes for some sympathy inside city hall. “We’ve got a potential ally in city authorities, though I have to emphasize the word ‘potential,’ and we haven’t received any concrete support yet,” he said.

An ill tempered fight

Support from City Hall would be all the more valuable given the pressure deployed by the movement’s opponents. Yesterday’s gathering was calm and the police presence light, but the campaign has often encountered casual brutality. After a rally at the same place on August 7, three forest defenders were attacked and one had his skull fractured by about 15 young men dressed as football fans. And before the protestors were evicted from their camp in the woods in July, they were menaced by a number of thugs in white T-shirts.

The “men in white” are still unidentified – Chirikova says she has “no idea” who they were. However, several activists who were at the camp said they knew from posts on Internet forums that far-right football hooligans who follow the Moscow club Spartak were amongst them. The suggestive link with the attack on August 7 is tenuous, however. Georgy, one of the activists who was beaten up last Saturday, said “it’s likely they knew lots of AntiFa activists would be at the rally, and they were lying in wait for them. They have such a tactic,” he said, referring to the anti-fascist movement that often clashes with the far right and has allied itself with the Khimki cause.

Meanwhile, Moscow Region police investigating the July 28 riot attack on Khimki town hall by dozens of people have taken an unusually heavy-handed approach in their search for suspects. On August 4 they “detained” Chirikova after a press conference by unceremoniously seizing her and bundling her into an unmarked car to interrogate her about the incident (speaking yesterday she seemed unbowed. “I saw 20 cops and I thought they must be for bin Laden or somebody. But they were for me!” she joked).

If intimidation of public activists and casual police brutality were not enough, the case has also spawned an assault on press freedom. In their search for leads into the attack on the Town Hall police have been pressuring journalists to surrender their sources, turning up at the home of the Gazeta.ru reporter Grigory Tumanov late at night, questioning a Kommersant FM radio reporter, and even showing up at the editorial officers of the Kommersant daily to demand the E-mail address of a suspect. The indignant paper promptly published a front page story about the incident and quoted its chief lawyer describing the revealing of sources as illegal (on August 8 Novaya Gazeta journalist Alexander Litoi was hauled off a train on his way back from holiday in Sevastopol and, like Chirikova, was reportedly bundled into an “unmarked black Mercedes,” though apparently with a little more respect – he told Kommersant that the men who detained him were “polite and correct, and even helped get my things off the train”).

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