Time is running out for Russian activists hoping to stop the construction of a highway through an old growth forest outside of Moscow. In an eleventh hour campaign, the Movement to Defend Khimki Forest is targeting the French company overseeing the controversial project. Vinci, one of Europe’s largest corporations, signed the contract for the Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway in 2009 and could begin the first phase of development this month. The 43-kilometer section will slice through the heart of an old growth oak forest, an important corridor for large game and home to numerous endangered plant species, as well as a cherished greenbelt on the edge of one of the world’s most polluted cities.
The campaign to save the forest has met with brutal reprisals from armed thugs and state security services. It has also been remarkably successful in rallying international attention as well as building broad based support within Russia (an overwhelming majority of Russians oppose the planned route). The activists are now calling on Vinci to withdraw in the hope that it will force a reappraisal of the project.
“We want to put pressure on Vinci because it is the only European company participating in the project,” Yaroslav Nikitenko, one of the leaders of Defend Khimki, wrote in an email. “In contrast to the Russian government, Vinci has a reputation and it has shareholders who shape its policies. We want to show the world just what kind of project it is taking part in.”
After a week of international actions and a petition on Change.org that generated more than 20,000 responses, Defend Khimki’s leader Yevgenia Chirikova traveled to Paris herself to deliver the petition to Vinci at the company’s annual shareholders meeting May 2. Until recently the company, which pulled in profits of more than $46 billion in 2010, has been conspicuously silent on the question of human rights abuses, corruption, and lack of transparency associated with the highway project, which is hailed as Russia’s first public-private partnership in the area of road construction.
Since its inception the highway project has been marred by vicious attacks directed at journalists who have investigated the issue and the opposition movement. Activists have been repeatedly attacked, often by armed thugs, and arrested for simply demanding greater accountability. It is widely believed that the savage beating of journalist Mikhail Beketov in 2008 was tied to his reporting on the issue and his outspoken criticism of Khimki Mayor Vladimir Strelchenko.
In late March Bankwatch Network and Defend Khimki appealed to the United Nations Global Compact, to which Vinci is a signatory, asserting that the company has violated its commitment to human rights and the environment. Vinci finally responded last week in a letter to the Business and Human Rights Network condemning the use of violence and denying any link whatsoever between the project and the attacks that have occurred.
“They are partly washing their hands of it and partly ignoring the whole thing completely,” says Pippa Gallop of Bankwatch, an NGO active in the campaign. “There is no evidence to link Vinci directly to the violence, that’s for sure. But we see them as a beneficiary of this violence. To deny that there’s any link at all between the whole project and violence that has occurred is pretty brave of them.”