9th Jun 2023


Money talks in EU-Russia relations

  • Matveev: 'The only way forward is to keep European money out of projects that are being implemented on the back of naked repression' (Photo: dachalan)

During Vladimir Putin's visit to Brussels last week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso did little else than whisper a shy question about human rights prior to a press conference. The EU certainly can and should do more.

Just two days before Mr Putin met Mr Barroso, back in Russia the authorities were busy threatening activist Evgenia Chirikova that her children would be taken away from her. A week earlier, Russian police had arrested activist Alla Chernyshova and her daughters of four and six, detaining them for several hours on bogus claims that Ms Chernyshova was responsible for a bomb threat.

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The two women are members of the Movement for the Defence of Khimki Forest - a group trying to prevent the construction of a section of the St. Petersburg-Moscow motorway through the woodland, one of the few natural areas left for inhabitants of the wider Moscow area.

In November 2009 Mr Putin changed the status of the forest from a protected area to land zoned "for transport and infrastructure." Critics say the move was illegal. French construction giant Vinci is now in charge of building the road.

There are several possible routes for the toll-charging highway to take, but planners have chosen a route that will destroy the forest by splitting it into at least four isolated segments.

Felling of trees started last summer. It was halted a few weeks later by President Dmitry Medvedev in response to protests from Russian and international environmentalists. But the project got a new lease of life at the end of 2010 when a government review (unsurprisingly) concluded that the Khimki route is the best alternative.

The government study is flatly contradicted by independent research initiated by environmental groups and authored by 18 experts in the field of environmental protection, environmental law, forestry, urban planning and transport development. The independent survey concludes that widening an existing road and developing public transport would be the best way forward.

For over a year now, security guards and unidentified individuals have arrested, intimidated and physically threatened the activists who turn up to events to save the forest. The Russian authorities' threats to take away people's children is another tool to stifle opposition. Activists' houses are monitored by plainclothes men and their family members are put under scrutiny. Fake criminal cases are built against them. Police routinely arrests campaigners even at officially permitted rallies.

On 15 January when activists came to 'symbolically' adopt trees, four were arrested at gunpoint.

In a deeply disturbing development that made headlines around the world, unidentified assailants in November 2010 beat local journalist Mikhail Beketov and an activist, Konstantin Fetisov, so brutally that they have been left heavily disabled.

Despite the long history of abuses, the European Investment Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) were until as late as the end of 2010 planning to put in €200 million of loans into the project.

The EU commission eventually announced there would be no funding. But the Russian state corporation Avtodor is reportedly in talks with the EBRD over funding for other sections of the St. Petersburg-Moscow motorway (to be built once the Khimki forest section is completed) and other road projects in Russia.

Several of the other projects to potentially get EU bank money are also environmentally destructive. For example: the St. Petersburg Western Speed Diameter - likely to involve at least the EBRD - is to pass through the Yuntolovo wildlife reserve and has already provoked significant public protests. The Odintsovo bypass, also in the Moscow region - in which the EBRD expressed its interest in 2008 - will go through the centre of the Podushkinsky forest park.

The EIB and the EBRD justify their involvement in controversial projects such as these Russian roads by saying their contribution helps increase transparency, public participation and the enforcement of environmental standards.

But the two banks have been forced to distance themselves from the Khimki project precisely because of the grave violations of these principles. It is crystal clear that European financing has had no positive impact on the human rights situation in Russia. On the contrary, it has allowed Russian authorities to continue with their abusive practices while claiming there is European support for the motorways.

Surely if the EU is concerned about human rights in Russia, the only way forward is to keep European money out of projects that are being implemented on the back of naked repression. We need some conditionality.

Withdrawing all European support from Russian motorways would put pressure on the Russian authorities and would certainly speak louder than Mr Barroso's quiet questions in Brussels. If it does not improve the human rights situation in Russia, such an act would at least clean up the EU's image at a time of scrutiny and soul-searching over its relationships with repressive regimes in the Arab world and beyond.

The writer is a member of the Movement to Defent Khimki Forest


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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