The view from the ground.

Bono vs. Putin

A rumble in the Khimki forest leaves just one man standing. The question is, how many trees are left there too?


View a slide show of how Putin and Medvedev spent their summer vacation.

This week, there was a miracle in Moscow: Bono came to Russia and rescued a forest. The forest was in Khimki, just outside Moscow’s northwestern edge, and, after years on the chopping block, it was in the process of being cleared to make room for a badly needed highway to St. Petersburg. Russian activists had been protesting the planned destruction of the ancient trees, a destruction that seemed spiteful and senseless, and one that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his cronies appeared to have decided on without consulting the people who lived there or considering any alternatives that would save the federally protected reserve. For years, the protesters were ignored, arrested, and, once, beaten half to death. Nothing worked and, this summer, the trees started to fall.

Until Wednesday night, that is. Bono’s band took the stage at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium and, in front of 60,000 people, he took out his black acoustic guitar and started to strum the opening chords of Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” And then he said, “Yuri?”

Out came Yuri Shevchuk, the frontman of the perestroika rock group DDT, with his scruffy beard and his glasses, and he started to sing along to the chorus. Like Bono, Shevchuk is no regular rocker. In May, he shocked Putin by engaging the omnipotent prime minister in a heated spat on the lack of social equality and freedom in Russia at what was supposed to have been a civilized lunch for the artists of St. Petersburg. (“Your words have weight, so use them,” Shevchuk admonished Putin. “My weight is 76 kilograms,” Putin snorted.)

The Sunday before Bono’s concert, Shevchuk had thrown his political heft behind the campaign to save the Khimki forest with a benefit concert performed 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. That didn’t sit well with big shots in the Kremlin, nor were they overjoyed when Bono, who spent Tuesday strolling the sun-drenched boardwalks of Sochi with President Dmitry Medvedev, brought Shevchuk up on stage before thousands and gave him a hug the very next night. Bono had gotten an open letter from Shevchuk before the concert about Khimki, and he spent the hours before his Moscow show giving pre-concert interviews to Russian papers in which he said he wished he’d known about the Khimki forest so he could’ve brought it up with Medvedev.

What could’ve ended with fluffy rocker politicking didn’t. Instead, on Thursday, the day after the concert, in a stunning reversal that seemed to come out of nowhere, United Russia — the country’s ruling political party, which had heartily supported the chopping — issued a public appeal to Medvedev to stop the tree cutting and to “thoroughly examine the situation.” Less than six hours later, Medvedev obliged. “Considering the amount of appeals, I have made a decision,” he said in a statement on his video blog. “I order the government to stop the implementation of regulations on the construction of the relevant highway and to conduct additional civic and expert discussions.”

The forest, in other words, was saved! Hoorah!


This being Russia, however, this was not the whole story, nor is it the end of the story. The president’s injunction was, on the one hand, an important victory. It shows once again that the Kremlin is no longer interested in using brute force to push its pet projects and that it still wants to maintain at least a basic give-and-take with its subjects. “We’re a political party. We can’t stay on the sidelines when an issue resonates so powerfully with the people,” says Aleksei Chadaev, the head of United Russia’s political department, adding that the party now has an array of “ecological initiatives” in the works. Given enough popular outcry — especially if the rest of the world, or Bono, starts paying attention — the Kremlin will respond in its own, strangely choreographed way. This is not, in other words, Iran.

On the other hand, the victory was not a people’s victory. Even Chadaev admits that. “The summer heat wave and the forest fires had a much bigger influence on our decision to save the forest than the noise around the Khimki forest,” he told me, alluding to the catastrophic environmental disaster that many have blamed on human interference in nature. (“And of course it would be untrue if I said I was not interested in votes,” he added when asked whether the upcoming parliamentary elections were factored into the party’s decision.)

Moreover, the “victory” part is very much in question, too. Even the activists who led the outcry, like 32-year-old former businesswoman Yevgenia Chirikova, are already preparing for the next round. When she first heard of the decision, she gasped, “Oh my god!” a statement that was widely disseminated in equally stunned Russian news reports. But after a few hours, reality kicked in. “Our mood is, of course, a very joyous one,” she told me that evening. “But the battle is not yet won, though this is a good claim to victory.”

Ivan Blokov, a representative of Greenpeace Russia, was equally floored and more than a little puzzled. “They didn’t solve this problem before,” Blokov said. “The minister of transport was involved in this, and nothing happened. Why appeal to the president? And they could have done this on the down-low. Why this loud PR? Was this really triggered by public protests? These are completely logical questions that you and I won’t succeed in answering.”

Blokov’s statement is especially revealing. Why did United Russia appeal to the president on a deeply local matter? Why did it appeal to him over prime minister and head of the party Vladimir Putin? Chadaev explained it by saying that the problem had outgrown merely “technical” proportions. “It needs a political solution,” he said. Really? But why the president, then, and not the local governor or the Moscow mayor? “These are people who are appointed by the president,” Chadaev said. “So they have to listen to him.”

And that’s a big part of the problem: For something to be solved in Russia — say, a forest getting chopped down — the president has to get involved. No one will do anything in that middle space for fear of stepping on the wrong toes. And what is the point of a mayor or a governor when their subjects have to go up to the president to get a response out of them? In the case of the Khimki forest, the chain of feedback is especially perverted. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the local prefect Oleg Mitvol were against the project from the start. And their impotence as intermediary actors is aptly mirrored in Blokov’s, the lowly activist and average Russian citizen, who cannot fathom why his leaders do what they do.

But the lack of effective, receptive institutional channels is a broader systemic issue. 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.

Sure enough, on Friday morning, just 12 hours after Medvedev slammed the breaks on the Khimki clearing, Putin issued a statement reminding everyone that stopping the chopping did not mean stopping construction on the road. “Clearly, we need to build the road,” he said, adding that he personally made the decision to halt the work, and noting, with a characteristic touch of sinister cynicism, that “unfortunately, we occasionally encounter [people] using ecological problems in competitive [business] battles.” Shortly thereafter, a United Russia dignitary issued a statement saying that the public discourse on the fate of the forest should involve “civilized people, not forest animals” — that is, the people who had disqualified themselves by protesting the loggers in tents in Khimki.

Although it’s unlikely that the Kremlin would risk igniting another round of protests, stopping the process at the height of public discontent — and now, international celebrity attention — was a shrewd move, but it was just that: a maneuver. “The protests were tenacious and they were spreading, not dying down as they hoped. It had dragged in Moscow, as well as Shevchuk, a star of the first order in Russia, as well as Bono, who elevated Shevchuk to international celebrity status,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst with the  Carnegie Moscow Center. “This was a flanking maneuver. They had to head off the wave, to take the air out of it. Now they’ve bought time; they can regroup and think of what to do next.”

And here are the possibilities: either put the road in a different location and spend even more money now that the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development has pulled out of the controversial project, or just keep going with the project as planned. In fact, the latter won’t be so difficult. On the morning after Medvedev halted the chopping, a group of journalists from the Russian business daily Vedomosti went out to the forest in Khimki. It found that the work of clearing a nearly 8-kilometer swath right through the middle of the woods was already done. It had been completed in early August.

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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