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Protesters Stage Moscow Rally Despite Heavy Police Presence

  • RFE/RL

Musician Yuri Shevchuk sings in Pushkin Square, in spite of authorities' efforts to block concert equipment from being delivered.

Musician Yuri Shevchuk sings in Pushkin Square, in spite of authorities' efforts to block concert equipment from being delivered.

MOSCOW -- The Russian authorities usually clamp down hard on any sign of organized protest. This time was slightly different. City officials initially granted permission for protesters to hold a concert on central Pushkin Square on August 22 before rescinding the decision, saying they would only be able to stage a rally.

The roughly 2,000 people who showed up were met with the usual heavy police presence, with officers in riot gear and police vehicles surrounding the square. Those attending the rally were forced to stand in long lines to pass through metal detectors.

Inside the square, demonstrators chanted "Freedom!" They were protesting the building of a highway through a protected forest in the northwestern Moscow suburb of Khimki, an issue that's drawn national attention.

Still, police arrested one of the organizers at the start of the rally and blocked anyone carrying musical instruments or audio equipment from attending.

WATCH: Musicians perform at the rally without microphones or equipment, while activists in the crowd chant "Send the route around the forest!" and "Russia without Putin!"

But veteran rock musician Yury Shevchuk -- lead singer of the rock band DDT, who were scheduled to perform at the canceled concert -- nevertheless sang songs without a microphone and strummed an acoustic guitar. He told the crowd he took part in the protest because nature in Russia was dying off.

"We musicians wanted to put on a concert to defend nature, the fields, forests, and Lake Baikal. The Khimki forest has become a symbol for everyone," Shevchuk said.

Shevchuk is openly critical of the authorities, and made waves in May when he took part in a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. He openly challenged the country's authoritarian leader, saying demonstrations in Russia are broken up by "repressive" security services.

The movement to stop the road prompted controversy in July when demonstrators from self-described anarchist and other groups joined the protest and threw smoke bombs and broke the windows of a local administration building.

Symbol Of Opposition

Today, activist Aleksandr Kim, who took part in the protest, says the Khimki forest has become a symbol for Russians who say they're fighting for their rights. “The most important thing is that people really want to defend the forest. That’s why I’m here today,” Kim said.

Earlier in the day, police arrested prominent human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov when he showed up at Pushkin Square. He was charged with organizing an unsanctioned rally earlier in the day, when around 100 opposition activists tried to march through Moscow carrying a giant Russian flag. They were marking Flag Day, which honors the tricolor flag adopted by democratic Russia following the Soviet collapse in 1991.

Police detained around 20 others, including opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister who also took part in the Flag Day protest.

Nemtsov told the AP news agency the decision to stop the march showed the mentality of Putin's government. "The flag is a symbol of freedom and democracy, only not for Putin," he said.

The activists had permission to hold a rally, but police said Nemtsov and another organizer, Mikhail Shneider, were detained for also trying to lead an unsanctioned march.

On August 21, 3,000 protesters attended a rally in the Baltic Sea exclave of Kaliningrad to demand Putin's resignation and a return to direct elections of regional governors. But the protest was significantly smaller than a rally of 10,000 there last January.

written by Kevin O'Flynn in Moscow