Protests in Yekaterinburg (Ekaterinburg), Russia, have lasted nearly a week with crowds numbering more than 5,000 people, according to Ivan Zhilin in The Moscow Times. Residents of Yekaterinburg are protesting the planned construction of a new Orthodox Church in the middle of an inner-city park, and tensions escalated after violent clashes between police, who were bolstered by private security forces, and protestors. Over the first four days of the protests, 96 people were arrested with more probably having been detained. After interventions by President Vladimir Putin and other senior political figures, the conflict has subsided and construction has been postponed. In reaction to the protests, Putin stated that an opinion poll must be conducted in order to determine the proportion of people that are in favour of the construction.
Addressing a press conference in Sochi, President Putin said the church “should unite people, not divide them.” He went on to say that a poll is the best democratic decision to “resolve the situation” because you have to “consider the interests of the minority.” Deputy Mayor, Yekaterina Kuzemka, speaking to Interfax-Ural news agency, agreed a poll is needed but said that polls conducted by state officials will never be “perceived by the protesting public as legitimate.”
A poll is a democratic solution to the issue; however, with a repeated mistrust of government interventions, there is growing resentment among the residents of Yekaterinburg regarding politics. Zhilin reports that a poll was conducted by the Mayor’s office in February of this year, where 3,107 people voted for the Church, and only 192 people opposed it. When Yekaterinburg has a population of approximately 1.5 million people, many residents feel that this previous poll was falsified; this has led to many citizens and public organizations demanding the need for independently verifiable polls. Katya, a Yekaterinburg local, says in an interview with BBC Russia correspondent, Nataliya Zotova, “the people here are fighting not just for this park, but for the freedom to choose.” There is a desire for increased transparency regarding government dealings, so Putin’s demand for a more comprehensive poll will only be trusted if there is clear communication between state officials and locals.
Many residents stated they are not against the Orthodox Church, rather the planned construction of a new church in one of the city’s few green spaces. Yet, the severity of the reaction from either side highlights that these protests cannot solely be confined to the construction of a church in a park.
According to Russia’s constitution, it is a secular state, but an ever-present relationship between the Orthodox Church and Russian Elites (post the collapse of the Soviet Union) has meant political and administrative decisions are only serving the interests of either party. Fyodor Krasheninnikov, of OpenDemocracy, says that these recent protests are a struggle between two opposing views of religion in Russia. Supporters of the Church (Priests, Government Officials, Oligarchs) believe everyone should exercise their faith and attend Church for spiritual assistance. Whereas those opposing the Church place value in an individual’s right to choose: they would rather relax in the park than attend church. Official figures state that only four percent of Russia’s 146 million people regularly attend Church.
The Orthodox Church, with help from its wealthy sponsors, believe the construction is addressing a public need for increased religiosity – Putin fuels this rhetoric by calling the protestors “godless.” Evidently, inadequate consultation with residents, and reacting with violent impunity against peaceful protests is creating a situation where civil society will no longer submit to the powerful interests of the Church and big business.
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