Medvedev halts Russian motorway plan after protests

26th August 2010, Comments 0 comments

President Dmitry Medvedev on Thursday ordered the suspension of plans to build a motorway through a forest outside Moscow, in a rare case of the Russian authorities responding to popular protests.

His sudden announcement came after least 2,000 people turned out Sunday for a banned concert in central Moscow protesting plans to build the motorway through the Khimki forest north of the Russian capital.

The protest was much larger than previous opposition protests under the decade-long rule of strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin where unsanctioned rallies have been characterised by thin turnouts and police crackdowns.

"Although a decision was taken by the government to build the motorway, people including the ruling party and the opposition, social groups and experts say that additional analysis is needed," Medvedev said.

"I order the government to halt the realisation of the construction and carry out additional discussions," Medvedev added, speaking of the "increased resonance" surrounding the project.

"This decision must be carried out, taking into account the appeals and the worries," he said in a message posted on his video blog.

The numbers at Sunday's protest were undoubtedly boosted by the presence of Yury Shevchuk, a Soviet-era rock star who has become an outspoken Kremlin critic and defiantly sang at the rally.

The order came following an apparently well-choreographed appeal earlier in the day by ruling party United Russia to halt the construction of the road.

It was not immediately clear if Putin -- currently on a highly-publicised trip to the Russian Far East which has seen him chase whales and go bear-watching -- was consulted over the decision.

United Russia, whose overall leader is Putin and which dominates parliament, has become known for consistently rubber-stamping Kremlin policies without quibbles.

"We have different opinions within United Russia about this question. But the situation does not look simple," United Russia's chairman Boris Gryzlov said in a statement.

Activists welcomed the move by United Russia as long overdue but better late than never.

Environmental campaigners have campaigned for months to block the construction of the highway which aims to relieve traffic on the Moscow-Saint Petersburg route but has become a rallying cause for the opposition.

"We are very happy," said Yevgenia Chirikova, the activist who has led the protest movement against the motorway. "But it is hard to explain because until now the authorities were not reacting to the civic protests," she told AFP.

The decision was the latest sign the authorities were keeping a beady eye on the protest movement in Russia after the economic crisis and wildfire catastrophe.

United Russia earlier this month ousted the governor of the western exclave of Kaliningrad after a protest in the region in January attracted unprecedented numbers of over 10,000 people.

The opposition hailed that decision as the first concrete result of popular protests in the decade of Putin's strongman rule.

Vast numbers of police have been deployed at unsanctioned rallies over the last weeks as prices of basic foodstuffs surge due to the crisis in agriculture sparked by the heatwave.

This week the Moscow authorities have conspicuously closed off Triumfalnaya Square -- the traditional venue for opposition protests -- with a gigantic fence until further notice, ostensibly to build an underground car park.

Shevchuk, meanwhile, made another prominent appearance late Wednesday when he joined U2 frontman Bono onstage for a rendition of "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" at the super group's first concert in Moscow.

However the concert was marred after police detained rights campaigners at the jam-packed venue.

© 2010 AFP

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