Russian President Dmitry Medvedev halted a highway construction project championed by his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, in a rare public collision between the country’s ruling tandem.
Medvedev yesterday ordered the government to suspend construction of a toll highway from Moscow to St. Petersburg through a forest in Khimki, a suburb of the capital, and to conduct additional studies and public hearings. Ecologists say the project, run by Rueil-Malmaison, France-based Vinci SA, will irreparably damage the forest.
Putin has backed the project from its inception. On July 29, Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said the prime minister is informed “on a continual basis” about the project, including the felling of trees at Khimki, and that work is proceeding in accordance with the law, the Russian News Service reported.
“This won’t lead to a personal conflict between Medvedev and Putin, but it’s an important sign that Medvedev is becoming an independent leader,” Stanislav Belkovsky, a founder of the Moscow-based National Strategy Institute, said by telephone today. “It’s another step that destroys the myth of the all-powerful Putin.”
A representative of millionaire Arkady Rotenberg, Putin’s judo-playing friend of 40 years, sits on the board of Northwestern Concession Company, created in 2007 to build and operate the road, the Vedomosti newspaper reported yesterday.
Putin today downplayed any disagreement with Medvedev over the highway, saying he had discussed the issue with the president. A new highway between Russia’s biggest cities is necessary, though the route is “a serious question,” Putin said in comments on his website.
“This is entirely consistent with the logic of our behavior and actions in recent years,” Putin said.
Vinci “remains confident” that the Russian government will “find answers to the demands from opponents” of the highway, the company said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
“Vinci, through NWCC, confirms its commitment to continue contributing to the implementation of the project and its intention to do everything to bring its resources and expertise” to bring it to completion, the company said.
The highway has been the focus of environmental protests, including an illegal rally on Aug. 22 in downtown Moscow led by Russian rocker Yury Shevchuk, a critic of Putin.
During a Moscow concert by Irish rock group U2 on Aug. 25, lead singer Bono invited Shevchuk, frontman for the Russian rock group DDT, on stage, where the pair performed Bob Dylan’s classic “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”
Bono met with Shevchuk and other activists opposed to the highway through the Khimki forest before the show, according to environmental groups.
“Tree-cutting for the road is nearly done, but it’s not too late,” said Sergei Mitrokhin, head of the Moscow branch of the opposition Yabloko party. “We can still save the forest.”
Medvedev’s order to halt construction shows “how society can defend its rights and oppose odious decisions by the authorities,” Mitrokhin said.
In explaining his decision, Medvedev said he had taken into account the “concern expressed by a rather significant number of Muscovites,” political parties and civic groups.