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.”
In a statement last week French MEP and Green Party member Michèle Rivasi said that, “it’s particularly shocking to see a French company – Vinci – participating in this harmful project. I ask the Russian authorities to stop violence against activists and Vinci to withdraw from this project.”
The violence against activists who oppose the project may be well documented but the financial interests and players behind the highway development have remained obscure. In a report published on Saturday Bankwatch and Defend Khimki point out that the North West Concession Company (NWCC)—a joint venture between Vinci and several Russian construction and engineering firms—includes a long-time friend of Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin and a number of offshore investment firms whose shareholders are largely unknown (in 2009 Putin signed a decree that effectively altered the forest’s protected status to allow for “transport and infrastructure”). Vinci has also partnered with a little known company, Vosstran, whose shareholders are based in Syria, Lebanon, and France. “Why does a huge company like Vinci need to hire this quite unknown firm for their motorway project?” asks Gallop. Activists suggest rerouting, and have had an independent analysis conducted that proposes several other options.
For its part Vinci has shown no sign that it will reconsider its involvement in the project despite the fact that both the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development and the European Investment Bank have withdrawn their support. Vinci is due to sign a new contract for the first phase of development—valued at EUR 1.5 billion—this month.
In its notice to shareholders for the annual meeting in Paris, the Moscow-St. Petersburg motorway is referred to only in passing as one of the company’s “commercial successes” in 2010. Indeed Vinci stands to profit for years to come; they’ve been granted a concession to operate the portion of the toll road that would cut through the Khimki forest for at least the next thirty years. And the company sees Russia as a major new market.
“We are positive, the needs are absolutely huge, be it roads, airports, railways or car parks. We know that the government has the willingness to do things and they will need concessions among other things,” Vinci Concessions CEO Louis-Roch Burgard told reporters at the Sochi Investment Forum last year.
That is all true. But before even breaking ground on its first project Vinci has met an unlikely roadblock: a well organized popular protest movement in a country that isn’t supposed to have one. It’s taken Vinci a while to respond, even indirectly, to the protesters’ demands and questions. But even a visit to Paris, it seems, has left them undeterred. At the shareholders meeting on Monday Vinci Chairman and CEO Xavier Huillard said construction would begin in a few months and that the company bears no responsibility for the route selection or land acquisition.