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Russian Forest Coalition Appeals to EU

The Finnish-Russian Civic Forum (FINROSFORUM) promotes cooperation between the peoples of Finland and Russia by supporting civic initiatives for democracy, human rights, and free speech.




A coalition of Russian environmental organisations has appealed to José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to halt the participation of European financial institutions, including the EBRD and EIB, in motorway projects in Russia.

The coalition in defence of the forests of Moscow region called on the EU to withdraw its support for the projects until the rights of local residents were taken into account. The forest coalition includes WWF Russia, Greenpeace Russia, the Biodiversity Conservation Center, the Russian Birds Conservation Union, the Social-Ecological Union, and the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest.

The coalition pointed out that almost all major motorway projects currently under construction or planned in the near future in Russia have been “carried out without taking into account the principles of sustainable development, conservation of biodiversity, or public opinion.” The coalition noted the continued violations of human rights that environmental campaigners have been subjected to in connection with the motorway projects.

The appeal [pdf] listed the Western Rapid Diameter project in St Petersburg, which would pass through the territory of the Yuntolovo wildlife reserve; the Odintsovo Bypass, which is due to be routed through the centre of the Podushkinsky forest park on the northern edge of Moscow; the Moscow Central Ring Road, which would destroy forests in an area exceeding the total area of Moscow; and the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway, which would pass through the historic Khimki forest near Moscow.

Khimki forest is a birch tree forest that forms part of the so-called “Green Belt” around Moscow. The forest has a vital role in creating favourable living conditions for the residents in the area and is the main recreation zone for thousands of people. The Moscow-St Petersburg motorway would, in effect, destroy most — more than 1,000 hectares — of the forest.

The dispute over the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway has given rise to one of the sharpest environmental conflicts in contemporary Russia. Civic activists have been repeatedly harassed, unlawfully detained by police, and beaten by security guards, unknown thugs and neo-Nazi groups apparently contracted for the job. A local journalist, Mikhail Beketov, and civic activist Konstantin Fetisov were savagely beaten, leaving both men severely disabled.

After mass protests, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was forced in late August 2010 to call a halt to the construction and initiate additional public and expert discussions on the motorway project. The forest coalition arranged for independent experts to examine the project. In their report, the experts clearly demonstrated that the chosen route was the worst of 11 options considered. Yet the authorities chose to ignore the findings and pushed ahead with their original plan.

After the decision of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government to resume construction of the motorway — in fact, construction works never stopped despite President Medvedev’s public statements, — repression against the forest defenders resumed. Authorities have proceeded to fabricate criminal cases against the activists; police have arrested several activists and have even threatened to deprive them of their custodianship over their children.

The forest coalition commended the EBRD and EIB for their decision not to finance the disputed section of the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway. However, Russia’s state-run road building corporation, Avtodor, is reportedly in negotiations with the EBRD about participation in other projects, including other, less controversial sections of the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway. The EBRD’s participation would enable the Russian government to use state funds and money from state-influenced Russian banks to finance the projects.

The forest coalition has highlighted the continued involvement of the French construction group, VINCI, in the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway project, despite all the human rights abuses that the project has entailed. VINCI declares on its website that “sustainable development forms part of the Group’s overall performance objectives.” VINCI says it is committed to biodiversity and taking action as early as possible to limit the risks of endangering flora and fauna environments.

Moreover, VINCI has signed the UN’s Global Compact, committing itself to supporting and respecting, “within the Group’s sphere of influence,” human rights as well as supporting a “precautionary approach to environmental challenges” and “undertaking initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility.” The forest coalition has sent an open letter to VINCI Chairman Xavier Huillard, pointing out the elements of corruption, disregard of sustainable development, lawlessness, and repression of civil society that have accompanied the project.

The appeal of the Moscow forest coalition calls on the EU to pay priority attention to the questions of ecology and human rights in considering collaboration with the Russian government in road construction projects. The coalition emphatically recommends that EU institutions stay away from participation in motorway construction projects in Russia until the existing conflicts are solved and, in particular, until the route of the Moscow-St Petersburg motorway through the Khimki forest is revised.

“The EIB and EBRD are fond of arguing that their involvement in projects helps to raise standards,” the appeal says. “However, it is clear that in the Khimki case they have had no effect on maintaining human rights and public participation standards during their communication with the project promoter,” the coalition of environmental groups states.

The coalition argues that keeping a distance from Russian road projects until questions of human rights and public participation are solved is in line with the European Parliament’s resolution of 17 February 2011 on the rule of law in Russia. Such an approach, the coaliton contends, would facilitate Russia’s development into a modern democratic state that would adhere to the principles of sustainable development and the priority of human rights.

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