Russia to build new highway despite protests
The Russian government on Tuesday agreed to build part of a new highway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg through a forest outside the capital in defiance of heated protests by ecologists.
A government commission has approved the building of the highway "taking into account all the factors," Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in comments broadcast on state television.
"We believe that from the judicial point of view the proposed route is completely legal," he said.
Ecologists had decried the project for destroying an ecologically sensitive forest area and the issue had provided a rare popular rallying cause for Russia's sidelined liberal opposition.
Four billion rubles (130 million dollars) will be paid as compensation for the ecological damage to the Khimki forest outside Moscow, Ivanov added. Some 500 hectares (1,200 acres) of new forest will be planted to replace the 100 destroyed, he said.
President Dmitry Medvedev had earlier this year suspended the construction of the highway in what was seen as a rare concession by the Russian authorities to a protest movement.
The protests had grown in magnitude throughout the summer, culminating in a rare thousands-strong rally in central Moscow led by veteran Russian rocker Yury Shevchuk.
But the lack of a proper motorway heading north out of Moscow to its international airport Sheremetyevo and further to Saint Petersburg had led to horrendous traffic congestion.
Ivanov said that the idea of building the motorway was supported "by everyone".
He said that noise barriers would be built along the eight kilometre stretch of highway through the forest and no additional infrastructure like shops would be build on the sides.
"It will just be the road. Straight, like an arrow."
Ivanov said that the decision on the start of construction would come as soon as the project is formally approved by Medvedev.
Transport Minister Igor Levitin said the road would be built by the end of 2013, Russian news agencies said.
Yevgenia Chirikova, the activist who spearheaded opposition to the project, said she was still holding out for a last minute change of heart from Medvedev.
"This decision must be taken by the president and we do not want him to hide behind the back of Ivanov," she told AFP.
Several journalists and activists who addressed the issue have found themselves targeted, including local newspaper editor Mikhail Beketov who was left with brain damage after a brutal attack two years ago.
Journalist for the Kommersant daily Oleg Kashin, who also covered the issue was also savagely beaten in an attack in November that was condemned around the world.
Medvedev's suspension of the project pending the investigation by the government commission had also prompted speculation that he was at odds on the issue with his powerful predecessor and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
© 2010 AFP