A battle pitting Russian environmentalists against government authorities and French construction firm Vinci took a violent turn on July 28 when dozens of people stormed the administrative building of the Moscow suburb of Khimki, smashing the windows with stones and smoke grenades.

Anarchist group Antifa had initially announced a concert in Moscow's Trubnaya Square in support of environmental protesters arrested on July 26 on a campsite blocking the construction site of a highway. But quickly the music gave way to protest calls: the organisers rallied the gathered crowd (700 people according to Antifa, 80 according to police) to march on Khimki's administrative building. Egged on by cheering onlookers, the protesters began vandalising the building, smearing it with graffiti reading "Save Russia's forests!"

A highway through protected forest land

The unrest stems from a project to build a section of the new Moscow-Saint Petersburg highway in the middle of Khimki Forest Park, a protected natural area bordering Moscow which is home to centuries-old oak trees and fragile wildlife. In November 2009, local authorities authorised the opening of 144 hectares of protected forest land to commercial use, a decision fiercely opposed by the citizens of Khimki and environmental groups, who suspect the decision was prompted by heavy bribes and political pressure.

A subsidiary of French construction group Vinci was granted a 1.5-billion-euro contract to build the first section of the new highway. Contacted by environmental groups, the company denied playing any part in deciding the highway's route, saying in a statement that the decision was "the responsibility of the Russian government".

Critics of the plan appear to have been dealt with harshly. One of the highway's most vocal opponents, journalist Mikhail Beketov, narrowly survived an assassination attempt in 2008, allegedly in connection with his articles criticising the highway

Video posted on YouTube by Berlilli on July 28, 2010.

“The concert was just a cover for a carefully planned riot”

YouTube user Berillii (not his real name) followed the rally and the growing violence from the very beginning. He posted the above video and brings us this account.

At 6pm a big group of young people were gathered at Trubnaya Square in Moscow: there were anarchists, punks, young communists and regular students. Many of them looked like they'd just come to listen to a concert and didn't know that the music was a just a cover for a planned riot.

At about 7pm, a singer from one of the bands climbed up on a statue overlooking the square and declared that police, private security guards and Nazi thugs were attacking the environmental protesters in Khimki, and that we should take revenge. He called everyone to go to Petrovsko-Razumovskaya train station, and we set off from there to Khimki in 10 minutes.

I think there were at least 200 people participating in the protest and ensuing riots: I saw several train wagons full. I recall seeing one guy pick up a metal rod from the rail track, and I was thinking that things could get ugly. The crowd marched down Moskovskaya street up to the administrative building. The column of people stretched all the way down the street. When the start of the protest reached the building and started shooting from traumatic pistols (Russian rubber-bullet self-defense guns), people at end of the procession thought that a clash had broken out between protesters and security. (In fact, security guards were completely taken by surprise, and quickly fled the scene.)

I ran to the front of the procession and started filming. My video shows what happened from then on: the shooting, the stone-throwing, the graffiti, then the retreat, the march back to the train station. Everything went very fast."

The battle for Khimki forest

Environmental activists camp at the site where the deforestation of Khimki forest began in early July. Photo posted by Hegtor on Flickr on July 30.

Police arrest an environmental protester. Photo posted by Hegtor on Flickr on July 22.

 

The forest that Khimki citizens want to save. Posted on Flickr by Evgenia&Mikhail on June 12.