Courtesy of Agence France-Presse
April 20, 2015

A prominent Russian environmental activist said Monday she had fled to neighbouring Estonia with her family, fearing they could be targeted in an intensifying crackdown on the opposition.
Yevgenia Chirikova, who fought a high-profile campaign against the construction of a highway through a forest near Moscow and spoke at rallies against President Vladimir Putin’s re-election in 2012, said she had moved to Tallinn.

“I moved because I don’t want to endanger my loved ones,” Chirikova told AFP by phone.

“Right now, most of my colleagues are either dead, in prison, or have criminal cases opened against them.”

The activist, who moved to the EU state earlier this month, said she was also keen to avoid supporting the Russian government, including its policies over Ukraine, through paying taxes.

“Here I am glad that my taxes are used not for war propaganda but to fund education and other programmes,” she said, referring to the conflict in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have fought against Kiev government forces over the past year.

“The war has affected Russian society in the worst way,” she added, saying propaganda in Russian media has stirred public mistrust of grass-roots groups, making it more difficult to campaign for environmental issues.

Chirikova, who is married and has two daughters, emerged as the leader of a movement fighting to save a large area of forest near a Moscow suburb from road building, which they said was illegal.
Several activists protesting against the road building suffered beatings, and one vocal critic of the project, local journalist Mikhail Beketov, was severely crippled in an attack and died from complications in 2013.

Chirikova had previously complained that authorities threatened to take custody of her children and said the family lost their business after police pressured clients.

The road was eventually built but she continued her environmental campaigning and won the prestigious US-based Goldman Environmental Prize in 2012.

Chirikova said that she has no plans to file for political asylum but is staying in Estonia under a residency permit.

She said she will continue her activism via the Internet and planned to keep travelling to Russia, working with grassroots movements.

“I teach people that movements should not be centralised and dependent on their leaders, who can be vulnerable (to attacks from the authorities),” she said.

Her departure is the latest in an exodus of Russian opposition from the country in recent months, as authorities increasingly view any dissent with hostility while Putin’s ratings remain sky-high in the wake of Crimea annexation in March last year.