Putin Intervenes to Halt Cathedral Project After Popular Protests

Putin Intervenes to Halt Cathedral Project After Popular Protests


MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia intervened this week in a bitter dispute in a provincial Russian city that erupted in protests this week, calling on the regional authorities to settle the matter peacefully.

Such bursts of public outrage are growing more common in Russia, where stagnating and even declining living standards juxtaposed with expensive foreign adventures, official corruption and environmental degradation are testing people’s patience and driving down Mr. Putin’s popularity ratings.

The protests began earlier this week in Yekaterinburg, around 900 miles east of Moscow, after construction workers arrived to install a fence in a popular park — one of the few remaining green areas in the city of 1.5 million — in preparation for breaking ground for a new Orthodox cathedral.

As the week wore on, some of the protesters clashed with the police and private security guards. Dozens have been detained and 30 subjected to administrative arrest, Interfax, a Russian news agency, reported.

Speaking Thursday at a regional conference for journalists in the resort town of Sochi, Russia, Mr. Putin ordered the local authorities to suspend the construction, saying that “a cathedral must unite, not divide people.”

He added that “both sides should make the steps that would resolve the issue in the interests of all people who really live there,” and offered to conduct a regional poll over the issue.

On Wednesday, a Russian business daily, Vedomosti, reported that the government also suspended plans to build a vast landfill to store garbage from Moscow near the tiny town of Urdoma, 700 miles northeast of the capital — another project that had stirred spirited public protests.

Earlier in 2017, popular protests pushed the government to roll back on its plans to pass control over St. Isaac’s, the largest cathedral in St. Petersburg, from a local museum to the Russian Orthodox Church.

Analysts said that public frustration with the Kremlin had been growing for some time, beginning with unpopular changes in the pension system, and that Mr. Putin and other top officials were acutely aware of the declining poll ratings.

“Following the decision to raise retirement ages, Putin and his administration received polling data that showed that people’s trust in the government is declining,” said Aleksandr Morozov, a frequent Kremlin critic. “The Kremlin is trying to find a solution to this problem. In many cases, it is trying to be softer in its attempts to stamp out all civil activity.”

The cathedral is intended to replace an earlier one, dedicated to Saint Catherine of Alexandria, that was demolished by the Soviet government in 1930. A first plan to build an exact replica on the original spot was also met with resistance and eventually abandoned. The project is backed by two local tycoons.

Public documents, released by The Bell, a Russian news website, revealed that the cathedral construction was a part of a much larger development project that involves apartments, commercial spaces and parking lots. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists that he had spoken with the developer and that the two projects are not connected.

Sitting in the foothills of the Ural Mountains, Yekaterinburg has a reputation as a contrarian city. Until recently, it was headed by an opposition-minded mayor, Yevgeny V. Roizman. Russia’s first president, Boris N. Yeltsin, began his ascent to the Kremlin in the city, now the site of the Yeltsin Center, a museum dedicated to democratic change in Russia.



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