Russia party in rare appeal to Medvedev on motorway

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Russia's ruling party on Thursday made an unprecedented appeal to President Dmitry Medvedev to stop the building of a controversial motorway, days after a large protest fronted by a rock musician.

At least 2,000 people turned out Sunday for a banned concert in central Moscow protesting plans to build a motorway through the Khimki forest north of the Russian capital, a far higher figure than at previous opposition protests.

The turnout was explained partly by the presence of Yury Shevchuk, a Soviet-era rock star who has become an outspoken Kremlin critic and defiantly sang at the protest even though police refused to allow amplification gear.

"United Russia has turned to the President of Russia, D.A. Medvedev, with the request to halt the construction of the highway through the Khimki forest," the ruling party said in a statement on its website.

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

United Russia's chairman Boris Gryzlov said in a statement explaining the shock decision that the route of the motorway may even need to be changed.

"We have different opinions within United Russia about this question. But the situation does not look simple," he said.

"We think that it is necessary to carefully deal with the question and accordingly either change the route of the construction of the road or continue the work taking account of a deeper study of this question," he added.

Activists welcomed the move as better late than never.

"It is incomprehensible how a party of such a size did not notice this problem earlier," said Ivan Blokov, head of Greenpeace Russia. "But better late than never," he said in a statement.

Environmental campaigners have been campaigning 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.

Vyacheslav Volodin, a top United Russia official and deputy speaker of the lower house of parliament, appeared to warn protestors not to be over encouraged by their success.

"Acts of hooliganism will not bring anything positive to the situation," he told reporters.

"We will support whatever decision the president takes. Let's wait and see what it is."

The decision by United Russia was the latest sign the party is keeping a beady eye on the protest movement in Russia after the economic crisis and wildfire catastrophe.

The party 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.

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

However the concert, attended by 75,000 people, was marred after police detained rights campaigners at the jam-packed venue and tore down tents to prevent them gathering signatures for petitions.

© 2010 AFP

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