In Russia, fires -- and politicians -- are bringing down forests

By William J. Dobson
Friday, August 13, 2010

The biggest story in Russia today is the battle to tame a national outbreak of wildfires. The flames have consumed nearly 2 million acres of forests, farms and villages in their path. More than 4,000 people have lost their homes. A dense blanket of smoke and pollution has settled over Moscow; hundreds are pouring into hospitals because of illnesses triggered by the suffocating smog.

Russian media are focusing on government efforts to extinguish the fires, showcasing President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's promises to hold local officials accountable for not preventing the devastation. What the media are not reporting is the Kremlin's insistence, even as these fires rage, that a centuries-old oak forest on the outskirts of Moscow be cut down.

If you know about the destruction of Khimki Forest, it is only because you have heard the voice of Yevgenia Chirikova, the 33-year-old mother of two who unexpectedly has become one of Russia's fiercest environmental activists.

The Khimki Forest is a rarity in Russia -- a publicly protected green space. The land is said to have been one of the czars' favorite spots for hunting boar. Boars still wander the dense oak groves, but the wild forest has dwindled in size after decades of development. Nevertheless, what was left received the government's highest level of environmental protection long ago, ensuring that it would remain free of commercial use.

Three years ago, Chirikova took her daughters for a walk in the woods and noticed that many trees had been splashed with red paint. Online later, she read that Khimki Forest had been marked for demolition. The expanse was to be clear-cut to make way for a motorway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. Chirikova assumed this was a mistake; the land was protected, and there were more direct routes that didn't require bulldozing the forest. Someone needs to alert the authorities, she thought.

But it wasn't a mistake. Government officials, some with clear conflicts of interests, stand to benefit from the project.

When she realized the demolition was indeed to go forward -- recalling that time, Chirikova now says, "I was very naive" -- she returned to the forest armed with fliers to inform others about the planned construction. With support from her community, she founded the group In Defense of Khimki Forest. She began organizing protests, started a petition drive and worked with local journalists to publicize her campaign.

It is safe to presume that even if the Kremlin had known who Yevgenia Chirikova was, it never would have perceived her as a threat. She doesn't come from a political family. She had never attended a protest. But almost overnight a mother on maternity leave became a grass-roots environmental activist.

In Russia, speaking out can be dangerous. Chirikova's supporters received death threats. They were detained and arrested on trumped-up charges. One of her colleagues, journalist Mikhail Beketov, was brutally beaten outside his house -- and left with permanent brain damage.

Chirikova responded by stepping up her campaign. She ran for mayor as a single-issue candidate, forcing the incumbent as well as Moscow's regional governor to abandon their direct support for the highway. She brought lawsuits in Russian and international courts. Perhaps most effectively, she lobbied European banks to deny the Russian government roughly $750 million in financing. Ultimately, Putin was drawn directly into the fight over the 2,500-acre forest, issuing a decree -- that contravened Russian federal law -- to allow the construction to go forward.

A few months ago, I traveled to Khimki so that Chirikova could walk me through the forest she is fighting to preserve. The ground that drizzly April afternoon was still damp from the morning's rain. I asked, after all of her success holding the government at bay, what she thought would be the government's next move. "The next step is probably that they will start building," she replied. "We are ready. It is going to be very loud."

She was right. Last month the Kremlin sent loggers to Khimki. They didn't have permits, so Chirikova was able to stop them -- temporarily. Then the intimidation began. She was assaulted and nearly run over by a thug's car. At 5 a.m. on July 23, dozens of masked men attacked a campsite that Chirikova's campaign had set up in the forest and beat her supporters. The police arrived an hour later -- and arrested the activists. Last week Chirikova was detained after holding a news conference in downtown Moscow. She was charged with holding an illegal rally.

While wildfires burn around Moscow, the government is mowing down another forest. The wildfires are a legitimate natural disaster. But the government's ineffectiveness in extinguishing them is borne from the failings of the same authoritarian system that seeks to bulldoze Khimki Forest. Putin has promised to hold officials responsible, but he is the architect of the centralized, one-party system that has eliminated any genuine institution that can hold government accountable. Thus, firefighters have found access roads overgrown, ponds intended to refill trucks filled with sludge, and equipment in disrepair.

A corrupt, unaccountable politics does more than run roughshod over its citizens. It brings poor governance. Even after the last fire is out, the system that permitted this summer's devastation, and that destroyed Khimki Forest, will remain.

William J. Dobson, a former managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and senior editor for Asia at Newsweek International, is writing a book on the challenges to democracy.

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