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Fight for a Forest - and Democracy - in Russia

Arrest at Khimki forest last week, photos provided by the activists.
Arrest at Khimki forest last week, photos provided by the activists.
June 12, 2012

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Activists fighting to save an old-growth forest near Moscow say they're facing a breakdown of Russian democracy, and their supporters on this side of the ocean agree. With Vladimir Putin once again the Russian president, they say construction has resumed on an illegal road through the Khimki forest. The activists say road opponents, and even reporters, have faced arrests or life-threatening beatings.

Mikhail Matveev says his group has been part of the anti-Putin rallies that have drawn thousands. But he says they've had to leave the apartment they used as a base because of a crackdown ahead of a big protest.

"We just left it now, and it's dangerous to go there. Lots of flats of our friends were raided by police with automatic rifles and some people were arrested. They try to prevent people from going to this rally."

Matveev says democracy is the only hope for conservation in Russia because, when combined with the force of the government, the power of wealth is overwhelming.

"We don't see any possibility to save our nature without democracy, because we don't have any means to say to our government, 'Stop, don't do it.'"

The Russian legislature recently increased the fines by more than a hundred times for those arrested during a protest. Matveev says it's no accident this is coming at the same time as road construction that could mean millions in real estate development. He says he's worried about the future.

"We have more forest destroyed, we have more strict legislation on rallies and so on. We're afraid that one or two years and we'll be in Stalin's Soviet Union come again."

A West Virginia environmental activist, Vivian Stockman, who is with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, says the Russian situation fits what they hear from activists in many other countries.

"The political corruption really does immediately strike you. It's taken to different extremes in different countries, but the underlying greed and corruption is what we all battle."

The construction is being done by a French firm with ties to rich oligarchs close to Putin, as well as wealthy individuals from Syria and other countries. Putin's government has defended the road as needed to relieve congestion between Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

More information is at www.khimkiforest.org.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV