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Flurry Of Moscow Activism Hints That Mood For Protest Is Very Much Alive

Local residents have been camping out in Moscow's Torfyanka Park to protest against the building of an Orthodox church there. They say the project was implemented without any public consultation, thereby making it an illegal development.

MOSCOW -- Three years into President Vladimir Putin's third term and a renewed effort to banish conspicuous political dissent in Russia, local protests are bubbling up all over the capital.

From weekslong sit-ins to save neighborhood parks to pushback against development plans with ties to the political elite, Muscovites are taking their frustrations to the streets.

There are no clear signs that the outrage threatens to spill over into national-level politics.

But even a summer of very local discontent could mark a break with the relative quiet that has accompanied Putin's return to the Kremlin, since pro-democracy protests largely fizzled out under a clampdown that began in 2012.

In a sleepy park in Moscow's north for the past month, hundreds of residents have weathered rainstorms, police detentions, and scuffles with Orthodox radicals to protest what they regard as the "illegal" construction of a church.

In the city's southeast, hundreds of residents -- soccer fans, in many cases -- have rallied against office blocks planned on the historic site of the Torpedo FC stadium.

In its east, public hearings over massive development plans at an industrial park have drawn hundreds of protesters.

And just last week, 50 groups representing citizens' initiatives announced they were joining forces under a citywide umbrella to support one another on myriad district issues, from tariff disputes to corrupt land deals.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Center for Political and Geographical Research, suggests that "perhaps what we are seeing now is a kind of accumulation of protest energy."

Growing Grassroots Energy

Russian civil society rose to prominence in the capital in 2010 during a gritty grassroots campaign to defend Khimki Forest, northwest of Moscow, until it was eclipsed by political opposition protests that followed national legislative elections in December 2011 and Putin's return to the Kremlin in the spring of 2012.

But that protest movement lost momentum as activists were marginalized or jailed, draconian new laws imposed heavy fines for "unsanctioned" protests, and "foreign agents" were weeded out of the NGO sector.

Putin has managed to remain largely above the daily political fray in his current term, which ends in 2018, and enjoys sky-high favorability ratings (89 percent in the latest Levada Center polling).

But some Muscovites might be tempted to regard even the most grassroots victories as highlighting chinks in Putin's armor.

Residents of Moscow's Ramenki district hold posters with slogans such as 'No to killer road' as they protest against the decision of city authorities on a road separating residential areas and schools.
Residents of Moscow's Ramenki district hold posters with slogans such as 'No to killer road' as they protest against the decision of city authorities on a road separating residential areas and schools.

At Sparrow Hills, south of the Moscow River, thousands of people celebrated in June after a street campaign succeeded in briefly derailing a Kremlin-linked group's effort to erect an unpopular statue to Kievan Rus's Prince Vladimir, despite intimidation from Putin's favorite biker gang, the Night Wolves.

Marina Matukhina, a twentysomething Muscovite who has been part of a monthlong sit-in at her local park, Torfyanka, to block the construction of an Orthodox church, insists that "we're going to stay put."

Elsewhere, activists are using social networks like VKontakte and Facebook to campaign against the construction of an elite housing complex on the protected grounds of Moscow State University.

And residents of Moscow's Ramenki neighborhood have used social media to circulate an electronic petition (with around 2,100 signatures by a recent count) to oppose a new highway that would include a spur cutting through a protected area around the River Setun.

Aleksandra Andreyeva, an environmentalist, city activist, and municipal deputy for the capital's Lefortovo district, says such protests rarely blame Putin for their woes.

But she also insists of the scattered protests that "no one expected this in the summer."

"The situation is moving to a new level," she adds.

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