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Veni, Vinci, Von!
The Battle for Khimki Forest Is Coming Alive Again if Renewed Administrative Pressure on Their Leaders Is Any Gauge, Say Activists

Khimki Forest and Cut Logs Near Cleared AreaAs ecological activist leaders claim that Russian authorities are threatening to take away their children, environmentalists on Tuesday stepped up their opposition to construction of a highway through prize woodland outside Moscow, with a public protest in the capital. Around forty activists of the "Khimki Forest Defenders" movement gathered at Chistiye Prudy before walking to Vinci, the French construction company currently contracted to build the controversial highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The Vinci offices, however, have moved place.

Many thought the grassroots movement to stop the felling of Khimki Forest north-west of Moscow was falling from the heights of media attention that it reached last year.

Back in July 2010, President Dmitry Medvedev's decision to impose a moratorium on the road's construction for an investigation was seen as a rare victory for Russian civil society, so often seen as weak. When journalist Oleg Kashin, who covered the conflict for Kommersant daily, was brutally beaten in November, the movement won widespread coverage in the media.

That was until December, when Medvedev unceremoniously gave the project the go-ahead.

But the activists pledged to continue their struggle. "The Khimki Forest is definitely not lost and we will continue to fight for it. What Medvedev said about the construction recommencing ­ for the majority of those here it is illegal. The project is completely illegal," said Yaroslav Nikitenko, deputy head of the Khimki Forest Defenders.

And the latest bout of administrative pressure being levied on the Khimki activists is testament to the success of their continued opposition to the highway, the activists claim.

On February 21, Chirikova thought nothing more of it when she did not answer the door to her apartment. Later a neighbor came to her and explained that the local Child Welfare Services had called on them in connection with a complaint that Chirikova was being a bad mother to her children, four and nine.

Outraged, the fiery ex Moscow businesswoman and mother of two, called the Child Welfare Services and filmed the phone call in a video now widely circulating on Russia's blogosphere since it was posted on the movement's Web site.

The Child Welfare Services told Chirikova, 33, that they are obliged to follow up the complaint with an inspection of Chirikova's apartment in order to submit a report to the police. In a tweeted message on Saturday, Chirikova said the police rang at their apartment door in connection with the child abuse claims, although her husband refused to let them in.

"Everything used to be completely normal. Now there is the woe that the police are trying to take Yevgenia Chirikova's children away from her," said Nikitenko.

"We have realized that we are being effective in our protest now that opposition to us has begun again," Chirikova said at the rally at Chistiye Prudy. "On February 1, they broke up our rally by planting a fake bomb at it. And then ten days later Chernysheva was detained along with her children allegedly for doing this," said Chirikova.

On February 10, the editor of the activist pamphlet "Khimki Pravda is Alive," Alla Chernysheva, was detained along with her children after she was accused of planting an imitation bomb at a rally that she helped organize. Her children were held for four and half hours. Chernysheva told Russia Profile that she was denied access to a phone in order to call her relatives to pick up her children. She was also asked to sign a confession, she said.

The activists say they are trying to make as much noise in their opposition as possible, writing letters to a raft of non-governmental organizations, now including those which deal with child rights. Russia's Child Ombudsman Pavel Astakhov on Friday condemned the pressure on her through the child welfare services as "foul, illegal and unacceptable," Gazeta.Ru reports. They also wrote letters to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso timed to coincide with his meeting with Premier Vladimir Putin last Thursday.

In their latest strategy, the activists are trying to put pressure directly on Vinci, the French construction company contracted to build the road. They are appealing to Vinci's president, Xavier Huillard, in an open letter published on the front page of their newspaper, "The Khimkinskaya Pravda is Alive," which carries the headline "Vinci, Clear Off!" (Vinci, Vyidi Von!" Since Thursday they tried to distribute 15,000 copies in time for the protest. They had planned to submit an appeal letter to Vinci publically, although when they arrived at Vinci's old offices this afternoon, it turned out that they have moved, Nikitenko said.

"Clearly, Vinci are not up to speed with this project. If they really understood what is going on, then they would have left ages ago and stopped taking part in this corrupt project," said Chirikova.

Members of the opposition from the Just Russia and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) parties tried to score political points by attending the rally. Dmitry Gudkov of Just Russia called on the protestors not to give up their fight, arguing that it inspired civil society across the country.

"There is something called the Khimki Forest effect," Gudkov told the protestors. "I know a lot of rights workers in the regions who after the Russian president halted the project were overjoyed. They said: 'look our bureaucrats are actually thinking instead of carving up our money and our woodland between them." He called on them to keep up their opposition, which has been an example to other nascent grassroots movements across the country.

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