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© RIA Novosti. Anton Denisov

Khimki campaigners go to Paris

by Lidia Okorokova at 05/05/2011 22:45

The battle over the Khimki highway took a new turn this week as environmental activists petitioned French company Vinci’s Paris headquarters and demanded that the FSB investigate who really owns the Russian contractor tearing down the forest.

Meanwhile, in Khimki Forest, a new summer protest season is now underway, as campaigners were attacked by private security guards, and one Greenpeace activist was beaten up. The demand for an investigation into possible corruption came as the Defend Khimki Forest campaign and international NGO Bankwatch published a report questioning who will profit from the $8 billion Moscow- St. Petersburg highway, which is one of Russia’s first public-private partnerships in infrastructure.

The leader of the environmental campaigners, Yevgenia Chirikova, took a petition to the Paris headquarters of Vinci, the French company overseeing construction, and passed on the Bankwatch report to the Federal Security Service with a request that it investigate the web of offshore companies that stand behind the main Russian contractor, North-West Concession Company.

The FSB’s press service said it had “no such information” about a request from environmental activists. Vinci’s Paris press office did not answer e-mailed questions by press time.

French-Russian joint venture

The complex structures surrounding Vinci’s joint venture with Russian contractors are aimed at hiding the true beneficiaries of North-West Concession Company's lucrative contract, Pippa Gallop, a researcher from Bank- Watch, told The Moscow News.

According to the report, North- West Concession Company is 100-per cent owned by Vinci Concessions Russie SA Rueil Malmaison.

Vinci Concessions Russie SA Rueil Malmaison, together with Russian company N-Trans, established NWCC after the road was commissioned by the Russian government in 2008.

NWCC has recently reshuffled its top managers, with previous CEO Viktor Saveliev making way for Frenchman Pierre-Yves Estrade.

“We are in the transition period now and we are changing our CEO,” NWCC spokesman Sergei Ilinsky told The Moscow News on Thursday.

Opaque ownership structure

According to Gallop, NWCC is linked to a series of opaque privately-held companies, several of which are registered in tax havens such as the Bahamas, the British Virgin Islands and Cyprus.

Activists claim that this means large sums of Russian taxpayers’ money, funnelled into the publicprivate partnership, are ending up in offshore accounts – with no reliable way of knowing who the ultimate beneficiaries are.

Environmentalists have been fighting against the project to build a highway through Khimki Forest since 2004, and see Bankwatch’s report as more ammunition in their ongoing struggle.

But the Russian government insists that the highway is desperately needed to improve road infrastructure between the country’s two biggest cities – and says the road should go ahead, regardless of whether it is destroying environmentally sensitive forests.

Petitioning Paris

Chirikova f lew to Paris on May 2 to deliver Bankwatch’s report and a petition of 20,000 signatures against the road’s construction to a meeting of Vinci’s shareholders.

She told The Moscow News that Russian eco-activists were now spreading their campaign internationally with the help of their European counterparts.

“The French are using our country to get even richer – it’s clear that the law doesn’t work here, therefore Vinci has all the means to receive even more money from this project,” she said.

New protest camp

Chirikova said that, after half a year of trying to persuade authorities to change the route of the highway, she and other campaigners were now determined to fight on through a new protest camp at the construction site.

The camp was joined by local residents, representatives of Greenpeace, activists from the Left Front and Just Russia State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov.

Activists managed to stop further works at the site with the help of Gudkov, who joined the campaigners and asked contractors for their permit papers, RIA Novosti reported.

Since the camp was set up this week, two activists were beaten up, with one having his nose broken, Chirikova told The Moscow News.

State highway company Avtodor had a complaint about the activists, however, alleging that “some of the activists set expensive treeharvesting equipment on fire, which damaged it greatly,” RIA Novosti reported.

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