Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk sings in Moscow's Pushkin Square at an Aug. 22 demonstration to protect Khimki Forest. Photo via RFE/RL.
Russian authorities are not known for responding to popular protests, but when one of the country's most famous musicians and one of the world's biggest rock stars added their voices to the angry demonstrations against building a highway through an ancient oak forest near Moscow, the outcry became too loud to ignore.Last week, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced that he had ordered the suspension of plans to build an $8 billion highway through Khimki Forest, explaining the decision in a message posted on his video blog:
"Although a decision was made by the government to build the highway, people, including the ruling party and the opposition, social groups, and experts, say that additional analysis is needed.... I order the government to halt the realization of the construction and carry out additional discussions."
It was a subdued and measured way to end (for now) what has become one of Russia's most controversial disputes, an issue that, combined with the summer's devastating wildfires, has "heightened public anger over what is seen as government neglect of the country's forests," RFE/RL wrote. But what led up to Medvedev's statement was anything but sedate. The ongoing standoff had seen the brutal beating of highway critic Mikhail Beketov by unidentified attackers, reports of intimidation threats, and a local government building attacked with smoke grenades. And then things really got interesting.
U2's Bono Sides With Russian Rocker Yuri Shevchuk
When Russian rock legend and social activist Yuri Shevchuk performed a benefit concert for Khimki in Moscow's city center, "The concert only drew 3,000 people and the Moscow authorities wouldn't let him hook up his sound equipment, so he played a mute set -- but it brought the protest to the heart of the capital," Foreign Policy wrote. Shevchuk also appealed -- successfully -- to U2 frontman Bono, who brought the Russian rocker up onstage the next night and spoke to reporters about the Khimki issue in his pre-concert interviews.
The day after the U2 concert, Russia's ruling party -- previously a staunch supporter of the highway, and the party of Vladimir Putin, who signed the order stripping the land of its federally protected status in the first place -- reversed position and asked Medvedev to halt the tree cutting and reassess the situation, which he quickly did.
Though environmentalists were cautious about celebrating, expressing concerns that the work stoppage might just be a temporary political move, key activist Yevgenia Chirikova called the president's decision a victory for civil society. "I think it's time for a celebration already. Even if the decision is not final, the very fact that [Medvedev] stopped deforestation is a great victory," RFE/RL quoted her as saying. "I think it will be followed by other victories because people will start believing in their own power."
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