Analysts say the controversy may be turning into a wedge between Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has sponsored the road project, and Medvedev, who has tried to project a more liberal image. The two have worked in tandem surprisingly well since Medvedev was inaugurated more than two years ago, though Mr. Putin has consistently appeared to be the stronger player.
But the moment is fast approaching when Kremlin power circles will have to decide which of them will run as the establishment's candidate in presidential polls in 2012, and that has led to an uptick in publicly expressed differences between them.
"It's hard to say there's any public break between Putin and Medvedev over the Khimki Forest," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy. "Medvedev shows more concern for public opinion, while Putin emphasizes the importance of economic development. These could be two sides of the same coin, but they have the potential for conflict."
For the past several years, the environmentalist group, Defenders of the Khimki Forest, has been trying to mobilize opposition against plans to build a toll road between Moscow and St. Petersburg that would cut through the heart of the 1,000-hectare ancient woodland, part of a legally protected "green belt" around Moscow until it was removed from that status by decree of Putin a year ago.
Last April, the Supreme Court rejected a citizens' appeal to overturn the decree. But in mid-August, several thousand people rallied in downtown Moscow, including Russian rock star Yury Shevchuk, to support the Khimki activists. After U2 frontman Bono also raised the issue in a private Kremlin meeting with the president, Medvedev ordered the road-building project suspended pending a full review.