Yesterday, I wrote a piece about the Khimki miracle for Foreign Policy, in which I reckoned that this is not the end of the story and that the forest is very far from being, erm, out of the woods.
More pressing at the moment is the fact that the Khimki victory probably won’t last. For one thing, in going over Putin’s head, United Russia didn’t just defy the party boss, but a man who is personally invested in seeing the Moscow-St. Petersburg highway built exactly according to the original 2004 plan. Although he now says he is willing to entertain alternate routes, it was Putin who, last November, signed the order changing the zoning for the Khimki forest, from federally protected nature reserve (which it had been since Soviet times) to transport and industrial land. Furthermore, the man said to be behind the highway project is none other than St. Petersburg businessman Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s friend and one-time judo trainer.
And what do I wake up to this fine and rainy Saturday morning? News that, unfortunately, bear this out.
It’s only been one day since President Dmitry Medvedev ordered a halt to the chopping down of the forest to make room for a highway, but local authorities in Khimki are now circulating a petition (see image) in favor of resuming the destruction of the forest. What’s more, they are using good old tried-and-true Soviet tactics to gather signatures: intimidating factory workers and small business owners, making principals corral their teachers, the heads of the house their family, etc.
For all of Surkov’s adroitness and shrewdness in outfoxing the opposition, there’s still lots of work to do at the bottom of the pyramid. If the point was to head off protests, to push steam and emotion out of the system, and to give the Kremlin some breathing room to regroup and rethink how to approach this problem, it didn’t work. The local authorities are clearly panicking at seeing their cuts of the highway construction costs go out the window.
That is unless the petition came down to them on the vertical.