If you have read Dictator Watch recently, you may have seen my reports on Yevgenia Chirikova and the grass-roots movement she began to protect Russia’s Khimki Forest. Four years ago, Chirikova, a young mother of two, began an unlikely battle to prevent the government from bulldozing this environmentally protected greenbelt outside Moscow. After holding the authorities at bay, it appears the regime is running out of patience and resorting to force.
In recent days, members of Chirikova’s movement — Defenders of Khimki Forest — have been attacked in the woods while peacefully protesting attempts to cut down the centuries-old oaks. As in the past, their attackers wore plain clothes and are believed to have been sent by the Russian company hired to cut down the forest. Yesterday, 25 demonstrators were arrested for organizing a protest in the town of Khimki. Russian authorities dispatched the OMON — the domestic riot police — to clear the demonstrators. (The OMON has a reputation for brutality; its motto is “We know no mercy and do not ask for any.”)
Not surprisingly, several of the protesters were reportedly beaten badly, suffering head injuries. During the arrests, Chirikova wrote on Twitter that one of the activists, Oleg Prudnikov, had been beaten severely. “Doctors want to take Prudnikov to hospital but police will not let them do that,” she tweeted about one of her fellow activists, Oleg Prudnikov. Those arrested included Chirikova; Yaroslav Nikitenko; one of the leaders of the Defender of Khimki Forest; and Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the opposition party Yabloko. As of late yesterday, they had been denied access to their lawyers.
Why are Russian authorities resorting to force? According to Mikhail Matveev, Chirikova’s husband, the delays in construction are triggering fines that the Russian government must pay to the French construction company, Vinci. These fines amount to roughly $140 million, more than enough to get the attention of Russian officials. Chirikova’s campaign has already cost the Russian government more than $750 million in foreign financing from European banks. The Kremlin’s insistence on building this highway over environmentally protected land has become an incredibly costly, and is only getting worse.
Chirikova directly confronted Alexander Semchenko, the director of the Russian company that was hired to clear-cut the forest, last summer. Semchenko had sent hired thugs to attack the protesters then, too. Referring to the forest, Chirikova asked Semchenko, “Why are you destroying God’s gift?”
He replied, “Don’t worry. I will come to an agreement with God.”