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November 21, 2010

Attacked Russian Journalist Blames Forest Dispute

by Albina Kovalyova

The allegation by the Russian journalist Oleg Kashin against his attackers brings up questions surrounding Moscow's environmental region.

Oleg Kashin, the reporter who was beaten severely outside his home earlier this month, told investigators that he believes the attack was motivated by his reporting on the threats to Khimki Forest, in the Moscow region.

President Dmitry Medvedev was quick to respond to Kashin's attack saying "the criminals must be found and punished."

Environmental activists have been trying to stop the planned destruction of the forest to make way for a new highway linking Moscow and St. Petersburg. Kashin said the men who beat him resembled football hooligans.

Last week prominent Russian environmental activists voiced their concern over the growing violence surrounding the Khimki forest.

Evgeniya Chirikova, a leader of the environmental campaign in Khimki has herself been threatened over her activities. She says that past attacks on environmental activists were carried out by people who fitted Kashin's description of his attackers.

She says, this summer there was an unprecedented attack on our ecological camp, and the attackers were such - I would say - bandits.

Another environmental activist, Yaroslav Nikitenko, said the attack on Kashin was linked to a series of assaults against other journalists and activists connected to the Khimki area.

"Oleg Kashin really systematically wrote about the Khimki Forest," Nikitenko said. "That's why we can't omit this possibility. This is very possible because we see what happens to those who defend Khimki forest."

Two years ago Mikhail Beketov, the former editor of the local paper Khimkinskaya Pravada who wrote critical articles about the proposed road, was beaten so severely he is unable to walk or speak.

More recently there was an attack on a local activist Konstantin Fetisov who was badly beaten and still remains hospitalized. He was attacked just two days before Kashin.

This summer the Khimki forest flared up as one of the hottest political issues of 2010. After a series of high profile protests - including an impromptu concert by one of Russia's best loved rock stars in the center of Moscow - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called a halt to the logging.

Two weeks ago the Kremlin-controlled NTV television channel ran a critical investigative report into the crimes connected to the Khimki forest. The channel's journalist had an aggressive confrontation with the Mayor of Khimki, Vladimir Strelchenko, one of the road's biggest backers.

Some Russia analysts like Alexei Mukhin of the Center for Political Information see such a TV report as a step by Russian federal authorities to get rid of local powers in Khimki.

Mukhin says that the authorities have left themselves no choice about how to change the relevant persons who have already discredited themselves. Although the Federal authorities are trying to wrap this decision in a legal way and with the support of public opinion.

The federal television channel launched a similar wave of television criticism against former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his wife Elena Baturina. Weeks later the mayor was sacked from his position.

Oleg Kashin, who still remains in the hospital, writes for the Kommersant daily newspaper and is an active blogger. He has been critical not only of the destruction of Khimki Forest, but also of the members of pro-government youth groups such as "Nashi Young Guard".

Several protests in support of Kashin have taken place in the last weeks. In a break with the past, the authorities sanctioned the rallies, and President Medvedev has also been outspoken about the need to find those responsible for the violence against journalists.