Russia politics: Saving the forest, dividing the opposition

FROM THE ECONOMIST INTELLIGENCE UNIT

Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, has executed an official u-turn by halting construction of a highway through a forest close to Moscow. The decision follows a three-year long protest that has recently attracted attention in the capital city and abroad. There have been several signals recently of the authorities responding to public disquiet. However, the main motive behind the forest decision seems to be a determination to prevent social movements from swelling the ranks of the extra-parliamentary opposition. For the latter, there is no sign of the authorities letting up.

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s president, on August 26th ordered that work to build a section of a new highway from Moscow to St Petersburg through the Khimki forest, near Moscow, should be halted. He also demanded a review of the decision to route the highway through the forest, but stopped short of promising that the scheme would be scrapped. In the last few weeks, the forest protests have achieved a high profile in Moscow’s radio and newspapers. Mr Medvedev, in his announcement, noted that he had received “many appeals” and was aware of the concern felt by many Muscovites.

The decision marks a rare victory for a civil society group in Russia. Trees in the forest have already been felled to make way for the road, although this amounts to a relatively narrow strip and no tarmac has been laid yet. Thus there is the possibility for replanting that would largely restore the forest.

Friends of the forest

A group of protestors led by a businesswoman, Yevgeniya Chirikova, have been protesting against the routing of a highway through the forest for three years. In the last year they established a tent city inside the forest, in order to stall efforts to cut down the trees. This year the activists have found themselves in a stand-off with the police and have also been attacked by nationalist groups–after which the police arrested the peaceful demonstrators rather than the nationalists.

The need for a new highway to link Russia’s two principal cities is not in doubt. The existing road is inadequate, choked with traffic and in very poor repair. However, Ms Chirikova and her colleagues claim that the most obvious route for the new highway is alongside the existing road–indeed, land there was at one time set aside for the purpose. It has been alleged that the decision to route the highway through the Khimki forest was taken in order to facilitate the construction of commercial and retail facilities next to the highway. Thus, according to some protestors, the route was designed to satisfy the interests of construction magnates and their friends in political office.

On August 22nd an estimated 2,000-3,000 people attended a demonstration in Moscow in defence of the forest. It was attended by the veteran Russian rockstar Yuri Shevchuk, who performed a few songs. Police prevented other musicians from attending and prevented sound equipment being brought to the event. Mr Shevchuk earlier this year was engaged in a candid exchange with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister, about the right of citizens to protest. The protest gained an international edge subsequently when Irish rockstar Bono, of the group U2, met Mr Shevchuk and ecologists. He subsequently held a meeting with Mr Medvedev and then performed a concert, during which Mr Shevchuk appeared on stage.

In listening mode

The u-turn over Khimki forest is a rare event, although it is worth noting at this point that the review might conclude the highway construction could go ahead as planned. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable for the authorities to have been swayed by a few thousand protestors. Now, however, the social situation is different. The confidence of Messrs Putin and Medvedev has taken a knock as a result of the impact of the global recession on Russia. The latest macroeconomic indicators suggest that Russia’s recovery may be stalling and public opinion polls, though showing still-high levels of approval for the Putin-Medvedev tandem, show increasing pessimism over the economy’s prospects. And there is still anger in parts of the country over slow and inadequate response to wildfires across the country this month, in which over 50 people died.

The Khimki u-turn is not the only recent concession to popular discontent. Earlier this month it was announced that Gyorgy Boos, the governor of Kaliningrad, Russia’s westernmost region, would not be nominated for another term in office. In January, despite freezing temperatures, 10,000 people in Kaliningrad rallied to call for the dismissal of Mr Boos and of Mr Putin, mainly because of government decisions on car taxes and car-import tariffs that had hit the local economy particularly hard. The government is also investigating ways of defusing popular anger over the transport tax.

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The bigger picture: controlling the opposition

Some commentaries have suggested that Mr Medvedev’s decision to halt construction, in effect calling into question the decision of Mr Putin in 2009 to approve the project, points to a division within Russia’s ruling tandem. Probably this is wide of the mark. Both politicians are aware of the need to nullify public anger in current circumstances. In a sense it is curious that, in a country of 143m, protests by a few thousand people can be politically significant. However Russia’s political set-up, as recrafted by Mr Putin during two terms as president, makes it so.

Russia has two categories of opposition. The first is officially sanctioned and has representation in the federal parliament. It comprises the Communist Party (CPRF), the Liberal Democratic Party (LDPR) and Just Russia. With the partial exception of the Communist Party, the government tolerates the parliamentary opposition and conducts business with them. Just Russia is, in fact, a Kremlin creation designed to draw support away from the (CPRF); and although the LDPR is notionally an anti-establishment party, in practice it has always rallied behind the authorities at critical times.

The non-parliamentary opposition, including liberal and nationalist groups plus human-rights activists, experience very different treatment. They find it very difficult to contest elections and do not win seats in the national or regional parliaments. They get little or no exposure on state television, which is the primary source of news for most Russians. And on most occasions when they try to organise a rally in Moscow, they are denied permission and encounter robust police resistance. Because rallies are mostly attended by 1,000-2,000 people, it is relatively easy for the authorities to use strong-arm tactics to keep them under control–and to deter potential supporters from joining them.

This perhaps explains the willingness of the authorities to bow to popular sentiment over Khimki forest. The rough treatment meted out to Ms Chirikova’s supporters had driven them into an alliance with the extra-parliamentary opposition. The prospect of ecologists and other social movements–or, worse still, the fans of Mr Shevchuk and like-minded musicians–swelling the ranks of the extra-parliamentary opposition fills Messrs Putin and Medvedev with alarm. Protests of 10,000 are less easy to disperse than protests of 3,000, presenting the authorities with a dilemma: to use more force to break them up, or to let them go ahead. Either would have potentially negative consequences from the perspective of those currently in power. If larger protests were held, unmolested, it could encourage more Russians to join. The Kremlin’s fear is that these protests could soon evolve into a serious political challenge.

No let-up

Halting construction of the road through Khimki forest burnishes Mr Medvedev’s credentials among Russia’s more liberal elements and will calm down some very angry Muscovites, yet the decision is best understood as a move to keep the extra-parliamentary opposition isolated. Certainly, there is no sign of the authorities letting up on its most implacable opponents.

The extra-parliamentary opposition has for the past year been holding a demonstration in central Moscow on the last day of every month that has 31 days, in support of article 31 of the Russian constitution–which guarantees the right to free assembly. On the same day that Mr Medvedev bowed to public pressure over the Khimki forest, a Moscow court sentenced Mikhail Shneyder, a leader of the opposition movement Solidarity, to three days in prison for disobeying the police at a July 31st rally. Lev Ponomarev, a veteran human-rights campaigner, had earlier been sentenced to three days’ imprisonment for the same offence–prompting the head of the Russian branch of Amnesty International to suggest that Mr Ponomarev may be a prisoner of conscience. The Solidarity movement’s application to hold an authorised demonstration in central Moscow on August 31st was rejected earlier this month; indeed it has not received approval for a single rally this year.

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