KHIMKI, Russia – What started as a small and private crusade to save a forest just outside Moscow transformed Yevgeniya Chirikova into an opposition star and her city into one of the first battlegrounds in an unprecedented wave of anti-Putin protests. Now that she is running for mayor, her supporters are wondering if the Kremlin will give her a fair chance to win.
Chirikova's campaign to lead the booming town of Khimki is seen as a test of the electability of the opposition — and a sign of whether President Vladimir Putin is willing to tolerate dissent outside of the confines of the capital. The Kremlin has marginalized opposition figures, limiting access to media and painting them as big-city malcontents out of touch with the concerns of ordinary Russians.
The life of 35-year-old Chirikova epitomizes the civic awakening of Russia's small but growing middle class. Angry over a planned highway that would pave over a forest, the mother-of-two began to speak out in 2006, gradually emerging as a leader of a movement that has increasingly questioned the institutions that dominate daily life across Russia with little open debate.
"I'm an ordinary mom," she told The Associated Press in an interview. "There are people like me everywhere in the country. They must go into government, they must fight for their land."
On a recent afternoon, Chirikova campaigned in a way any democratic voter would recognize, surrounded by a swarm of journalists and occasionally stopping to shake hands with residents in the streets. Visiting a construction site that has replaced a Soviet-era garden, she complained about the way residents are blocked from the planning process in Khimki, which like many growing Russian towns is plagued by overdevelopment and residential high-rises that seem to sprout overnight.
Resident Serafima Naumcheva, 61, tempered her high hopes that Chirikova could beat Khimki's acting mayor Oleg Shakhov, who has Kremlin support and whose career is closely linked to the highway.
"Everyone here likes her, but people say there's no way she will be elected — locals might as well vote for her but I don't think that the election commission will play fair," she worried.
Chirikova, who once ran for mayor before protests that began last year appeared to change the political landscape, handed in her registration papers on Monday for the Oct. 14 vote. She now has until Sept. 13 to submit 800 signatures in support. Scores of opposition candidates have been barred from running in the past by election officials who found fault with signatures or other small details.
Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin said he was certain that pro-Kremlin election officials would not tolerate the activist at the helm of this relatively small, but key, city of around 208,000 people.
"I think she won't be allowed to win because billions of dollars are at stake there," he said, referring to the Khimki highway budget.
The highway issue has been central to Chirikova's career.
Chirikova, who holds two degrees in aviation and economics as well as an MBA, was born in Moscow and moved to Khimki shortly after giving birth to her first child. While walking one afternoon with her two daughters in the Khimki forest, the young mother saw marks on the trees and later learned that regional officials had decided the forest would be chopped down. Chirikova started printing petitions and soon formed a tight circle of supporters and followers.
The battle touched some of Russia's most intractable issues: corruption, land use and the abuse of power. The Khimki highway project offers more opportunities than usual for enrichment because the cleared land along the roadway is slated for development. Activists say that the current route benefits officials because they can buy the land in the forest for kopecks.
In November 2008, Mikhail Beketov, a local journalist who was among the first to raise the alarm about the destruction of the forest and suspicions that local officials were profiting from the project was beaten so viciously that he was left brain damaged and unable to speak. Two years later, Chirikova's fellow activist Konstantin Fetisov was beaten with a similar degree of ferocity — he was left brain-damaged, too.
In recent years, Chirikova has received numerous threats, her husband has been beaten, and authorities have threatened to take away her children. But, she insists: "Either you go out there and do it and don't think about fear at all, or you leave the country because life is scary everywhere in Russia for anyone who holds any strong views," she said.
A turning point for her came in July 2010 when a camp of activists in the forest was rousted by masked men with Nazi tattoos, she said.
"I felt completely helpless sitting in that police station: Our camp has been destroyed, the forest was being cleared," she recalled.
But a month later the Khimki cause drew a rally of at least 3,000, the largest in many years. Banned from using any sound equipment, one of Russia's best loved rock singers Yuri Shevchuk performed an acoustic gig under the monument of Russian poet Alexander Pushkin to thousands of people — many of whom still regard that rally as the precursor of last winter's wave of civic activism.
Chirikova's dedication won the admiration of many and brought her a prestigious environmental award, the Goldman Environmental Prize. Four days after the rally, then President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the clearing of the forest suspended and called for public discussion of the project. In December that year, however, Medvedev ordered the clearing to be resumed, saying that the project had gone too far to stop it.
When Moscow erupted with mass rallies last winter, Khimki's campaigner became one of the most recognized faces of the protest. Leading opposition figures including Alexei Navalny, Sergei Udaltsov and Russia's oldest liberal party, Yabloko, have thrown their support behind her.
Unlike her chief opponent Shakhov, Chirikova lives in a typical dilapidated neighborhood and does not own an expensive car. After a news conference in Moscow, she took the metro and a bus to get to Khimki, preoccupied with tweeting, texting and taking calls on her cell phone.
Chirikova ran for mayor in her activist days in 2009, coming in third at 15 percent behind incumbent mayor Vladimir Strelchenko, with 22 percent. A 2010 opinion poll by Levada Center showed that about 76 percent of Khimki residents believe in Chirikova's campaign to save the forest, which supporters say shows she has a strong chance of winning this time.
But liberal politician Boris Nadezhdin voiced skepticism about Chirikova's electability in his blog, saying that "people are willing to support outspoken opposition leaders at parliament elections, but are not ready to see them in a mayor's office."
Chirikova is still upbeat.
"Our main goal is to inspire, to show that we can do it," she said at a meeting with Khimki residents last week. "If we can't — it'll be impossible to live here. We have no other choice."
Andrey Bulay contributed to this report.