It might seem residents in Ufa, in Russia's Bashkortostan republic, have good reason to protest after a sinkhole opened near their apartment block last month and swallowed up two cars, one of which vanished completely.
But when the residents of three buildings on International Street gathered outside their homes on December 11 to protest and ask for relocation, the only official reaction was a visit by police officers to their homes that evening. The police threatened them with jail and fines for holding an unsanctioned rally.
"I don’t understand why police came to me and why they are trying to silence me," said Raisa Vavilova, one of some 40 residents who took part in the gathering. "The police keep saying we were holding [protest] posters and that [we] can hold public gatherings only in a certain place. They threatened to fine me 10,000 to 20,000 rubles ($160 to $320)."
The official response was in line with the crackdown on public demonstrations in Russia that began in 2012 ahead of President Vladimir Putin's controversial third term, which sparked large-scale street protests.
The laws, which have progressively tightened since then to also ban silent pickets if more than one person takes part, restrict even authorized protests to specifically designated locations.
The sinkhole, which appeared in November, swallowed two cars, one of which has still not been found.
But while the antiprotest laws usually appear targeted at political opponents of the Kremlin, the police response in Ufa suggests that even protests by distressed citizens seeking help with neighborhood problems are unwelcome.
"We gathered because the authorities do not respond to our concerns and our demands," resident Elena Maisailo told RFE/RL. She said that the residents decided to protest only after officials failed to respond meaningfully to complaints they wrote to authorities immediately after the giant sinkhole opened up near their homes on November 25.
Residents Told Not To Panic
The sinkhole, 6 meters deep, claimed a compact-sized Lada car. The vehicle, which disappeared into its muddy waters, was never seen again, even after repair crews drained the sinkhole completely.
"It took two weeks [for an answer], and the only response was a written announcement placed in the corridors [of our buildings] saying not to panic," Maisailo said. The signs were part of a citywide campaign outlining public safety procedures to be followed if a sinkhole opens nearby, including instructions to stay calm, leave vehicles, move to a safe distance, and not use elevators to evacuate buildings.
The residents on International Street say that advice hardly calms their fears. Unsettled by the pit just outside their doors, they want officials to examine the structural integrity of their buildings and resettle them somewhere safer.
Geologists who study sinkholes in the Ufa area have recorded multiple previous collapses in the vicinity of the three buildings.
A study published in 2002 by the Institute of Geology at the Ufa Scientific Center, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, notes that the corner of one of the buildings collapsed in 1984 into a sinkhole that was almost 5 meters across and 12 meters deep. It also says that one of the buildings was built on a former sinkhole that was 25 meters across and 50 meters deep.
Sinkholes form when underground water dissolves soluble bedrock such as limestone, carving out subterranean caverns that cause the ground above to suddenly collapse, often without warning.
With reporting by RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service