Trying to save a forest, and change Russia

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 9:09 PM

MOSCOW -- Protesters here endure arrests and beatings but rarely see change. So the few movements that have taken on the authorities and forced them to back down have raised intriguing possibilities about a different kind of Russia.

Today's battle rages over Khimki Forest just outside Moscow, where 200-year-old oaks stand so thick and silent that traffic from the nearby highway sounds like the hum of a lazy mosquito, leaves fall to the ground with a veritable clatter and iPhones warble in the air.

The phones belong to Yevgenia Chirikova and Yaroslav Nikitenko, who are trying to prevent construction of a Moscow-to-St. Petersburg highway through the 2,500-acre forest. As a warm October sun dapples the trees with light, they guide two television crews and a newspaper reporter among the oaks, while sending e-mails, giving interviews and arranging news conferences on their phones.

Their Defenders of Khimki Forest movement has persuaded President Dmitry Medvedev to temporarily halt tree-felling and reassess the project, which has had powerful proponents, including Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired as Moscow's mayor after publicly criticizing Medvedev's decision.

Khimki, where the czars once hunted, has all the drama, sweep and conflict of a Russian opera. Its cast of folk heroes includes Chirikova, who lives in a 1960s apartment block close to the forest and started the campaign a few years ago after she noticed strange markings on trees.

The editor of the local newspaper, Mikhail Beketov, took up the cause and was so viciously beaten in November 2008 that he has been hospitalized ever since, unable to talk, half paralyzed. His attorney, Stanislav Markelov, a human rights activist, was shot and killed on a Moscow street in January 2009. Over the summer, two young men in a crowd that broke windows and spray-painted slogans on the Khimki City Hall were jailed and face seven years in prison.

The highway has been undertaken by Russia's Transportation Ministry, run by Igor Levitin, who is on the board of the nearby Sheremetyevo Airport as well as Aeroflot, the national airline based there. The construction industry, built on corruption, wants the work. Regional officials want development opportunities.

"Here you see the dream of the Russian bureaucrat," said Chirikova, gesturing at the forest. "It's a Klondike for them."

How the story ends may leave Russia on the path toward developing a civil society - or not.

Building a movement

Chirikova, a 33-year-old who radiates energy with every smile, started writing letters four years ago. That campaign evolved into ordinary people camping in the forest, blocking bulldozers with their bodies and being arrested at rallies. The movement eventually won support from Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund and the Russian Federation of Car Owners and in August filled Moscow's Pushkin Square with a few thousand demonstrators, along with rock stars and prominent opposition leaders.

"That was our main victory," said Nikitenko, a 22-year-old physics graduate student from Moscow. "There hadn't been such a demonstration for years."

A similar style movement arose in 2005, when pensioners took to the streets, compelling the authorities to back off changes in their meager benefits. The next year outraged drivers helped free a motorist in Siberia who was sentenced to four years in jail because he failed to get out of the way of the speeding governor, who hit a tree and died. Earlier this year, Muscovites fended off the destruction of their homes, targeted for a park project.

"I think it is an important experiment for this country," said Dmitri V. Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Russians are watching, and they are learning how to stand up for their interests."

Trenin calls the political system "authoritarian with the consent of the governed."

"Political freedom doesn't depend on the Kremlin," he said. "It depends on the attitude of the people." Most have been busy fashioning comfortable nests after years of Soviet deprivation. "They tend to limit their activities to the private domain. Everyone is for himself in this country."

Soviet rule imparted a sense of helplessness - only 14 percent think they can influence governmental decisions, according to Denis Volkov, director of development for the Levada Center, a polling and market research firm, and 62 percent say they avoid contact with the authorities. When asked about democracy, no one mentions freedom of speech or assembly. "The first thing they say is a high standard of living," he said.

So far, said James F. Collins, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, successful activists have seized on local issues that have affected people personally and left them feeling that government has exceeded the bounds of decency.

"What we haven't seen is one of these groups turn into a permanent structure with a life that goes beyond the issues," said Collins, who directs the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

They can exist, but are limited by lack of money and ways to share their hard-won experience. "They are not NGOs, which can be banned," said Karine Clement, a French sociologist, referring to nongovernmental organizations. "It's impossible to ban a movement. They are only people."

Grass roots start to show

Sergei V. Kanaev, who heads the Moscow office of the Russian Federation of Car Owners, laments that protecting motorists abused by authorities comes down to writing letters. "We won't seek foreign money," he said. "The next thing you know I'll be accused of working for the CIA."

Alexander Talyshkin, a 77-year-old Khimki native, cherishes the woods and hopes the people will be heard. A ring road built in the 1960s destroyed much of the forest he knew.

"Now they want to finish it off," said Talyshkin, who was among a steady stream of people fetching spring water and gathering mushrooms on a recent day.

"Here in Russia you either stay at home and suffer," said Chirikova, "or you pick up sticks and cut the boyar's throat. There has been nothing in between. Now we have shown that society is not dead. The grass roots are appearing."

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