Last week, the battle between the Russian government and environmentalists fighting to preserve a forest outside Moscow took another turn. As Kathy Lally, The Post’s Moscow bureau chief, reported, 11 members of the Defenders of Khimki Forest, including its leader, Yevgenia Chirikova, were arrested by police. The standoff that led to their detention occurred when Chirikova and her supporters demanded to see the work permits of construction crews that were felling oaks in the environmentally protected forest. The crews were only suppose to haul away trees that had been cut down last summer, before the residents of Khimki managed to halt construction on the controversial highway project.
Technically, the proposed highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg is still suspended. Although a government commission recommended that the project go forward in December, the commission’s order has not yet been endorsed by President Dmitry Medvedev. But the interests behind the highway don’t appear to be waiting for the Russian president’s okay. A couple weeks ago, Chirikova, posing as a potential buyer, called a real estate development firm that is already selling off lots in the Khimki Forest. Further, as I have written before, the regime has not stopped attempting to intimidate those working to preserve this green belt.
Nevertheless, the Defenders of Khimki Forest are stepping up their fight. They are now targeting Vinci, a global construction company headquartered in France, for its role in the highway project. Vinci is the only foreign company involved in the highway’s construction, and it has refused to back out. In advance of the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Paris on May 2, the Russian environmentalists have gathered more than 20,000 signatures in a global petition on Change.org that asks Vinci to end its involvement in the project. Green parties in the European parliament are supporting the calls against Vinci.
Chirikova has already succeeded in getting the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank to suspend their financing for the roadway, stalling more than $750 million in foreign funds. In the next several days, Vinci’s global offices will be the focus of demonstrations in Moscow, Toronto, Buenos Aires, Bremen, Prague, Mexico City and elsewhere. You may barely be able to find Khimki’s 2,500 acres on a map, but its defense is taking on global proportions.
It’s no surprise that the Russian government has continued to press for clear-cutting this forest. But the heads of Vinci might want to ask themselves if, in this instance, the Kremlin is the best business partner?