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Russian Officials Suspend Controversial Church Plan As Putin Suggests Polling Public


Russian riot police detain activists protesting on May 15 against a plan to build an Orthodox church in a park in the Russian Urals city of Yekaterinburg.

YEKATERINBURG, Russia -- The mayor of Russia’s fourth largest city says construction work on a proposed new church, which sparked three days of protests, has been temporarily halted, hours after President Vladimir Putin said residents should be consulted in an opinion poll.

The announcement by Yekaterinburg Mayor Aleksandr Vysokinsky was the latest development in a protest campaign that has rocked the Urals city and drawn support from across Russia.

Thousands have protested against city plans to build a replica of a cathedral demolished by Soviet authorities in a popular central park, with 100 people arrested over the past three days.

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Activists complain that the park is one of the few green spaces remaining the city, and have called for the development to be sited elsewhere.

Riot police and members of the National Guard cleared the park of protesters late on May 15.

On May 16, they erected extensive barriers and fencing to prevent a new protest.

Police officers stand in front of a fence to block demonstrators protesting the planned church on May 16.
Police officers stand in front of a fence to block demonstrators protesting the planned church on May 16.

Earlier May 16, Putin weighed in publicly on the controversy for the first time, saying he supported holding a public survey of city residents.

"If people are against it, that opinion must be respected," he said at a forum in the Black Sea city of Sochi. There should be "a survey, and the minority should concede to the majority. That is what democracy is about."

Churches "must unite, not divide people," he said.

Hours later, Vysokinsky appeared in Yekaterinburg before a crowd that had gathered again in the park. He told protesters that he too supported holding a poll.

"As of today, we have stopped the construction," Vysokinsky said.

"The construction will wait until a decision is made [based] on public opinion. The next thing is that we have to come to an agreement on the remaining parks and gardens regardless of what takes place in this one," he said.

'Serious Civic Pressure'

Many protesters were skeptical.

"Whoever carries out the survey will get the result they want," 33-year-old engineer Aleksei Chopa, who has attended the demonstrations every night since May 13, told RFE/RL.

Yevgeny Roizman, who was a widely popular mayor until he resigned last year in protest at electoral changes, also appeared among the crowd on May 16. He said he didn't support holding an opinion poll.

"Don’t even doubt that [the poll] will be dishonest,” Roizman told the crowd. “But we can influence the situation. The fact that so many people have turned out already is putting serious civic pressure on the situation.”

After the third night of protests on May 15, police blocked off the entire park with barriers, and makeshift metal detectors were installed to control access.

The regional police department said that 96 people have been detained since May 13. A local court said some of those were sentenced to several days in jail for taking part in an unsanctioned protest.

Human rights monitors said many of the detained individuals reported being beaten, some severely. At least one person was hospitalized after being beaten by police.

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on May 16 denied reports suggesting that the church would be part of a major complex including high-rise apartments and businesses to be unveiled in 2023.

"The information about the church being a part of a bigger construction plan and that other buildings and centers are scheduled to be raised there is not true," Peskov told reporters.

Meanwhile, more than 74,000 people have signed a petition against the construction of the church, which activists say would deprive them of another public recreation space in a city that already has few.

In recent months, there have been а number of national protests that have focused on issues like Kremlin-backed reforms to the pension system, and legislation to increase state control over the Internet.

But there have also been public protests that have focused on localized issues.

Residents of a Moscow region town last year had a series of violent clashes with police over a proposed new landfill to house trash and garbage from Moscow itself.

A similar protest was staged near the northern city of Arkhangelsk in February, where residents fought another proposal to have Moscow garbage transported to a local landfill.

The North Caucasus region of Ingushetia has also seen a series of angry demonstrations over a proposed land swap with neighboring Chechnya.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, MKhD Media, and RFE/RL's Russian Service
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    Matthew Luxmoore

    Matthew Luxmoore is a Moscow-based journalist covering Russia and the former Soviet Union. He has reported for The New York Times in Moscow and has written for The Guardian, Politico, The New Republic, and Foreign Policy. He’s a graduate of Harvard’s Davis Center and a recipient of New York University's Reporting Award and the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Journalism Award.