By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 14, 2010; 9:10 AM
MOSCOW - The Russian highway project that would slice through an ancient oak forest - protested by a wide swath of citizens and so controversial that journalists who wrote about it were beaten and maimed - will indeed be built, government officials said Tuesday.
Earlier this year, President Dmitry Medvedev intervened in the dispute, halting construction to allow for a reexamination of the project's merits. With powerful construction and political interests arrayed against nascent civic activism, his attention offered the possibility that ordinary citizens were being heard in a country where the powerful, the connected and the corrupt hold sway.
It was not to be.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said Tuesday that the government commission convened to study the new highway connecting Moscow and St. Petersburg through the 200-year-old Khimki oak forest had concluded that economic, legal and time imperatives outweighed all else.
"We have made a decision to build this road," Ivanov said. "The decision to begin the construction will be made as soon as it is approved by the president."
Protesters said they are not ready to concede defeat, although it seemed unlikely Medvedev would fail to approve the plan now that it had the imprimatur of the commission that examined it.
"No doubt, we will contest this decision if it is approved by the president," Yevgeniya Chirikova, leader of the Defenders of Khimki Forest, told the Interfax news agency.
Her movement, which has argued that a route avoiding the 2,500-acre forest could easily be found, has already filed one lawsuit against the project with the European Court of Human Rights. "I think there will be more lawsuits," Chirikova said.
Igor Levitin, the transportation minister, said relocating the road would delay construction through the town of Khimki to 2017. Now it can be built within three years, he said.
Ivanov said the government would spend $130 million to compensate for damage to the environment, planting trees on the 247 acres of forest to be cleared, and more.
Levitin said that $170 million would have been lost on the $1.7 billion construction if the highway had been moved. "if the contractors found the new route unprofitable," he said, "we would have been forced to completely substitute federal funds for private investment."
The project has already taken an enormous toll. Two years ago, Mikhail Beketov, a Khimki newspaper editor who opposed the highway, was savagely beaten, leaving him paralyzed and unable to speak. Despite his condition, the local mayor recently won a slander case against Beketov, who was brought to court in his wheelchair. The decision was recently overturned.
At the beginning of November, Konstantin Festisov, a highway opponent, was beaten, his skull fractured. Then, in a case that aroused widespread public anger, Oleg Kashin, a well-known and non-political reporter who had written about Khimki for the Kommersant newspaper, was badly beaten with an iron bar outside his apartment building.
None of the attackers has been found. No motives have been determined.