MOSCOW (Reuters) - Is it a milestone victory for popular protest in Russia or a cynical Kremlin ploy?
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday suspended an unpopular project to build a toll motorway through the protected centuries-old Khimki oak forest on the edge of Moscow, saying he wanted time for more discussion.
It was unclear whether the project was canceled or just delayed. Either way, Medvedev’s order looked like carefully orchestrated damage control by Russia’s leaders before a parliamentary election next year and a 2012 presidential ballot.
Referring to suggestions by the leaders that they planned to remain in power for years to come, Ekho Moskvy radio commentator Sergei Buntman said Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin couldn’t let the issue hinder ‘Operation Continuity’.
Putin, who steered Medvedev into the Kremlin in 2008 after serving two terms as president, is Russia’s paramount leader. He is widely expected to return to the top office in 2012 for another six-year term and may stay at the Kremlin until 2024.
On Thursday, Putin’s ruling United Russia party asked Medvedev to suspend work on a section of a planned Moscow-St. Petersburg toll road through Khimki, a rare piece of undisturbed woodland on the capital’s outskirts.
Given final approval by Putin’s cabinet last November, the project is opposed by local activists and environmentalists who say the badly needed road connecting Russia’s two biggest cities could easily be re-routed.
A Khimki newspaper editor who campaigned against it spent months fighting for his life after a brutal 2008 beating that resulted in the amputation of a leg and fingers.
In recent months, opposition to the road increasingly united environmental activists, rights groups and beleaguered Kremlin critics looking for a cause that could have broad appeal in a country where public apathy plays into the hands of Putin, who remains popular after a decade in power.
Opponents of the project argue that the route through the forest is longer than the alternatives. They say its real purpose is to open up swaths of pristine woodland for lucrative development.
United Russia’s unexpected announcement came after a rally and concert in central Moscow on Sunday. It featured rock star Yuri Shevchuk and attracted more than 2,000 people, one of the city’s biggest protests in years.
Medvedev responded hours later, suspending road works in the forest pending public and expert review. Putin moved to quash talk of a split with his protege on the issue on Friday, saying the decision was “right and just” and he and Medvedev had discussed it earlier.
Ecological activists gathered at the Moscow office of Greenpeace, where they popped champagne corks and hailed the decision as a sign that civic activism was gaining a foothold and forcing the Kremlin, which has weathered the protests of a marginalized opposition for years, to listen.
“I hope it will be a good example for other people who fight for their rights. I am very glad the authorities reacted properly. Well done, Dmitry Anatolievich (Medvedev),” Yevgenia Chirikova, a leading local activist, told Reuters on Friday.
Others were not convinced.
Facing opposition backed by Shevchuk, “the state machine decided on a tactical retreat,” Mikhail Rostovsky, an observer at the popular newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, wrote in Friday’s edition.
“The battle in Khimki is just the exception that proves the rule.”
That battle is not over. Putin and Medvedev said road works had been suspended not scrapped, and some political analysts suspect they will let the issue hang until after the elections and then push ahead with initial plans.
That would not be difficult. While work on building the road itself had not yet begun, the newspaper Vedomosti reported that workers had already cut a path through the forest, clearing 60 of the 144 hectares reserved for the project.
Additional reporting by Nikolai Isayev and Mikhail Antonov; Editing by Michael Stott and Andrew Dobbie