Thousands of people jammed the Russian capital to protest a plan to demolish decades-old apartment blocks housing more than a million people, delivering a new challenge for President Vladimir Putin as he gears up for re-election in less than a year.
About 20,000 people rallied Sunday in Sakharov Prospect in Moscow’s downtown, according to an activist group that monitors attendance at demonstrations. Police, who stopped Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny from joining the protest, said 8,000 took part.
Russia in March witnessed the biggest anti-government demonstrations in five years, with 60,000 people turning out in more than 80 cities to protest corruption amid falling living standards after the longest recession in two decades. The rise in civic activism comes as Putin, 64, who’s expected to seek a final six-year term next March, faces an uphill task to retain people’s support because of the economic squeeze.
Faced with resistance to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin’s initiative to tear down 8,000 aging apartment buildings with 1.6 million tenants, the authorities cut the scale of the demolition to 4,500 buildings with one million residents. But protesters say the law working through Parliament to enact the resettlement is so vague, any house can be designated for demolition.
They accuse authorities of rushing the legislation, which has already won preliminary approval on first reading, to favor the interests of Moscow property developers that are traditionally close to City Hall and have suffered from a recent slump in real estate prices.
“The main aim is business, to seize the land and make money by selling apartment buildings,” said Vadim Glushkov, a 44-year-old engineer who like many at the rally said that this was the first time he had taken part in a protest.
Under the draft law, property owners will get apartments in new housing of the same size — but not the same value — in their district or a neighboring one. This is feeding fears that instead of living in low-rises homes in green, residential spaces in Moscow they’ll be rehoused in vast skyscrapers on the outskirts of the city.
The so-called Khrushchevki were built in a construction program that Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev began in 1955 to rehouse families in apartments of their own rather than sharing crowded communal flats. While many buildings are in disrepair, owners have spent money on renovating their properties.
Tatiana Malova, 54, one of the protesters, said she’s been a loyal Putin supporter but will choose how to vote next year based on whether he listens to the people and cancels the proposed law.
“What’s scary is the speed at which they’re doing it,’’ she said, pointing out that residents will have only a month to vote on the plan from mid-May. With officials distributing glossy brochures showing elite modern blocks that people can move into, if the plan is backed by a majority of homeowners, those who refuse to move out will be forcibly evicted.
Putin, who would get less than half of the vote in the presidential election according to a survey last month by the independent Levada Center, down from 62 percent two years earlier, is in a difficult situation according to the research group’s deputy director, Alexei Grazhdankin.
“Especially after the March protests, it’s important to avoid stirring up the country’s population in a pre-election year,” he said. “These people who are rallying aren’t only from educated circles but all sections of society and social protests are what the authorities need to avoid.”