Outspoken environmental activist Yevgenia Chirikova proclaimed on Thursday her bid to become mayor of the Moscow satellite city of Khimki the beginning of the “next step” in the battle against what she called shortsighted Kremlin policies.
“The protest movement began with a 5,000-strong central Moscow rally in defense of Khimki forest in 2010,” Chirikova told journalists. “We’ve learned now how to defend our land - the next step is to get into power and begin to wean the country off its dependency on natural resources.”
“It’s disgraceful to live on non-renewable resources,” she added. “I want to make Khimki a city that is developed on the back of human talent by creating interesting work for its educated population.”
Chirikova, 35, played a leading role in the organization of the unprecedented protests against President Vladimir Putin that broke out late last year and her candidacy comes as the opposition seeks to promote a united front at regional elections.
But the anti-Putin movement has so far only achieved one victory at local level – the landslide triumph of opposition candidate Yevgeny Urlashov in April’s mayoral elections in the central Russian city of Yaroslavl.
Chirikova has been Russia’s most high-profile environmental activist since she spearheaded a campaign to save Khimki forestland that stood in the path of a planned Moscow-St. Petersburg highway.
And she received a boost in her bid to become mayor of Khimki on Thursday when the head of Russia’s oldest liberal party, Yabloko, said it would back her at the polls.
Sergei Mitrokhin, the party leader, also accused Khimki authorities of electoral fraud and organizing attacks on environmental activists. He said “things would go on like this” if the ruling United Russia party’s candidate - current acting mayor Oleg Shakhov - was elected.
Tensions over the controversial Moscow-St. Petersburg road have turned violent in recent years, with a number of brutal assaults on opposition journalists and eco-activists in Khimki. Opponents of the highway also resorted to force when dozens of masked people attacked the city’s main administration building in July 2010.
The construction of the $8-billion highway was suspended by order of then President Dmitry Medvedev in August 2010, but has since resumed.
Chirikova said she did not rule out a smear attempt against her candidacy, but suggested this would be to “spit in the face” of what she said was the over 70 percent support she enjoys in Khimki. She was citing a 2010 public opinion survey by the independent Levada Center pollster that indicated 76 percent of Khimki residents supported her bid to save the city’s centuries-old forest.
Chirikova’s candidacy was confirmed on Sunday at a meeting in Khimki forest attended by anti-Kremlin opposition figureheads Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption blogger, and Sergei Udaltsov, the fiery leader of the Left Front movement.
The elections are expected to take place on October 14, in a day of nationwide voting for regional authorities that have been targeted by the anti-Putin opposition as a crucial stage in their bid to dislodge the former KGB officer from power.
Chirikova also said she had received support from Yeltsin-era deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov and that she expected his opposition Parnas coalition to announce its backing for her campaign bid in the near future.
The elections were called after former mayor Vladimir Strelchenko quit his post on August 14.
Khimki, with a population of some 200,000, was built up by Soviet authorities after World War Two as an aerospace defense development center.