SKOLKOVO, Russia (Reuters) - Russia has decided to restart work on a disputed motorway cutting through one of the last forests in Moscow’s sprawling suburbs, overruling protests that prompted President Dmitry Medvedev to delay the project.
Medvedev’s order in August to suspend construction in Khimki Forest was seen as a rare Kremlin concession to protesters and raised the hopes of environmentalists and other activists.
The decision to go ahead, announced on Tuesday, will disappoint them and could deal a blow to the image of the president, who had championed the idea of giving activists and ordinary Russians a stronger voice in a nation known for top-down rule.
Medvedev’s original decision to halt construction was a rare moment of discord with his predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. His subsequent reversal has given credence to suspicions that Putin is behind the approval of the project.
Kremlin spokeswoman Natalya Timakova told reporters on Tuesday that after reviewing possible alternatives, the government had told Medvedev it had decided in favor of the original route through the forest in Moscow’s northern suburbs.
“The decision will be fulfilled,” she added.
Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, announcing the plan to go ahead earlier in the day, said the government would spend up to 4 billion rubles ($130 million) making good some of the ecological damage to the forest.
“This is such a high-profile affair ... that additional ecological measures will be taken: additional saplings will be planted and roadside infrastructure will be banned along an 8-kilometre section through the forest,” Ivanov was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
Yevgenia Chirikova, an environmental activist who has led the fight against the motorway, said resuming the controversial project would be a judgment on Medvedev’s indifference to “the people, the law and corruption.”
“We need to hear the decision from the president’s mouth. He must look the people in the eye and announce whether he accepts it,” she told Reuters by telephone.
Chirikova said that public discussion about how best to proceed with the work was to have been part of the government review, but activists had been ignored or sidelined.
“Medvedev promised us public discussions: There were none. He promised to listen to public experts: Let’s hear them!” she said.
Chirikova and other campaigners have organized months of protests this year in the Khimki suburbs, culminating in a central Moscow rally attended by several thousand people, led by veteran rock star Yuri Shevchuk.
Police have often broken up such protests roughly, and journalists who wrote about alleged corruption connected with the motorway’s construction have been beaten severely.
One local reporter who has become a symbol of the intensity of the struggle over the motorway, Mikhail Beketov, was beaten savagely in 2008, an attack that left him brain-damaged and in a wheelchair after losing four fingers and part of his lower leg.
Beketov’s supporters said he made enemies while campaigning against the motorway.
Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova; Writing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Steve Gutterman; editing by Tim Pearce