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‘We woke up in an occupied city’ Sverdlovsk's governor spends two hours in negotiations with protesters, and here's how that turned out

Source: Meduza
Sverdlovsk Region Public Communications Department

On the evening of May 13, Yekaterinburg witnessed the start of mass, unplanned protests against the construction of a new cathedral in one of the city’s central parks. Demonstrators toppled a chain link fence that appeared around the site earlier that morning, before a group of men identifying themselves as “church supporters” forced the protesters back to the perimeter and restored the fence. The next day, Sverdlovsk Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev sat down together with representatives on both sides of the issue to hear their arguments. The meeting lasted more than two hours. Meduza presents a summary of the opposing positions.

Opponents of the cathedral’s construction in the public park at October Square:

We’re not looking for a fight. The demonstrators in the park are just people who have come to defend one of their favorite spots in the city. Our goal is to find a solution that satisfies all sides.

We exhausted all democratic and legal options — both the courts and appeals to the president. We tried to start a dialogue with representatives from the St. Catherine’s Foundation and City Hall, but nobody would talk to us.

None of this would have happened, if we’d all come to the negotiating table sooner. Now we have to reset the situation and remove the fence.

There are no conspiracies or secret sponsors behind these protests. According to polling, 40 percent of the city is against the cathedral. There are people who will protest against the cathedral, no matter where they put it, but this describes just a percentile of the people who turned out on May 13. The rest of the demonstrators just came to protect this park and the nature it makes available to the public.

For a constructive dialogue, there needs to be mutual trust, but we don’t have that right now. On May 13, the public was confronted by armed men guarding a fence. It’s like we woke up in an occupied city. You can’t build a church with automatic weapons and violence.

We need a legal assessment of the actions by the city’s law enforcement. The police totally ignored the use of violence and tear gas by RMK guards. Why did the officers and the riot police protect them?

Let’s find a site that suits everyone, and then let’s decide on a good construction project. Right now, people think of 280-foot-tall concrete walls and they ask, “Who needs that?” The cathedral should bring us together, not divide us like this.

Supporters of the cathedral’s construction in the public park at October Square:

The only compromise you suggest is moving the cathedral’s construction to another site, but we’re perfectly aware that there will be new opponents at any other site.

This project went through all the necessary procedures. There was a decision by the City Council, and City Hall hosted public discussions on its website. More than 3,500 people voted for the project, and just 300 voted against it.

The people who don’t like this project need some kind of hype to keep their cause alive. You know you’ve exhausted your legal options, so you called people out into the streets.

It’s strange for you to accuse the cathedral’s supporters of neglecting public opinion and escalating the conflict, when it was you peace-loving citizens who knocked down the fence, overran the guards, and occupied a site that doesn’t belong to you.

We’re living in a real-live Groundhog Day right now: we’ve been through all this since 2010. We’ve been moving the construction site for the past decade, which is proof that we’re willing to compromise. But what we’ve received in return is rioting and mass unrest, not a constructive dialogue.

We know there’s never any consensus in the creative sphere, whether it’s ballet or an art exhibition, and you’re suggesting something that’s impossible here: consensus.

Your position has no credibility, unfortunately. We have respect for you as activists — we even have love. Today and going forward, we’ll pray for you that we don’t come to hate one another.

Moving the construction site would be spitting in the faces of the 20,000 people who came to Yekaterinburg's procession of the Cross in April. They are people, too, and they’re just as good as you.

Activists say they’re worried about the trees. Gather all your activists, dig up these trees, and go plant them somewhere else.

There will always be people in our city with views we don’t like. The fact that Russian Orthodox Christians have remained silent for the past nine years doesn’t mean they’re indifferent about this. We’ve simply tolerated it, and now our patience is worn thin.

We believers are deeply and still quietly hurt that we were denied a construction permit at a historical site, and sadly the news website E1 airs insults against believers and the patriarch.

It’s excellent that we’ve gathered at the table now. We have demonstrated our commitment, twice agreeing to move the cathedral to another location, in the interests of peace and love. Now we have the right to expect concessions from your side, out of concern for peace and love.

Please, don’t count on the police to be the main moderators in these events. On May 13, the officers were right to stand back. The police shouldn’t have intervened and dispersed the crowd.

Sverdlovsk Region Public Communications Department

Opponents of the cathedral’s construction anywhere on public grounds

The sticking point isn’t that the public wasn’t consulted. There will always be people against any project. The problem here is that the cathedral’s supporters are always trying to build on public land. If this is a private initiative, let them build it on private land. Why do they need to be in this public park?

If people are unhappy about this, it means our laws need more work. You should be thanking the people who came out to express their opinions. Thank God that some people still care.

Let’s ask the public where they’d like the cathedral to be. We don’t oppose the cathedral or Russian Orthodoxy, but let’s offer a choice of construction sites, so the public can choose. This is a democracy, after all. Not everyone voted for the president, but we all still accept him.

Supporters of the cathedral’s construction anywhere

There are 1.5 million people living in this city. If the majority support the project, but 500 people are against it, then you’re saying it’s no good? You had 500 people turn out on May 13. In other words, the rest of the city apparently supports the cathedral. So where’s the logic?

An Orthodox cathedral would add both spiritually and aesthetically to the city. We’re not talking about another shopping mall here.

History is repeating itself. When they built the Eiffel Tower, the locals didn’t like it. Some time passed and then it became France’s national symbol. Ninety-five percent of the people in Sochi were against all the construction for the Olympics, and now everyone thinks it’s become one of Russia’s best cities. Rest assured that everyone will be happy with the cathedral, 20 years from now.

Try to imagine this conversation happening in a Muslim country, with some of the public opposing the construction of a new mosque. If our main religion is Russian Orthodoxy, then what’s the problem?

We’ve already made compromises. We chose a new construction site. This project wasn’t designed on a napkin — it cost money — and that’s another compromise. Attempts to find further compromises are just an effort to muddy the waters and keep the process going forever. They won’t admit it, saying that they’re supposedly Orthodox, but this isn’t true, of course.

How do we know this? There are criteria: an anticlerical fuse connected to an anti-state attitude. The Church is guilty only of finding a common language with the state. Like the state, we love our country, which is why this falls to us! It falls to all patriotic forces.

You tell us not to look for secret conspiracies, but we disagree. Let’s take a look! You’ve got a representative from E1 on your side. And how long has E1 been a media outlet? You were a typical hostile voice of the Americans!

If somebody has a problem with the fence, they should have gone to court. But you decided to take down the fence, when democratic procedures didn’t go your way. In other words, you resorted to terrorist actions. And there’s no negotiating with terrorists.

Governor Yevgeny Kuivashev

I invited you here to talk about what happened on May 13. What happened was frightening. There was every reason to prosecute for property destruction, but I insisted on no arrests. Law enforcement will act within the bounds of the law.

People held public hearings, they designed the project, they filed the paperwork, and they chose the site. There are no legal grounds to cancel the construction.

I personally might have liked the city’s television tower, but it was a public safety threat. It was unfinished, pieces were constantly falling off, and I couldn’t finish the construction. It could have ended up another “Winter Cherry.” So I made the decision to demolish it, and the protests turned political, just like on May 13.

Now we’re dealing with a cathedral. There used to be a church here. Why don’t believers have the right to build a new one in the same place? They’re advocating historical justice. In 200 years, there won’t be a Yeltsin Center or a drama theater, but there will be a cathedral.

I’m on the Internet, too, and I can see that there are political processes brewing, sometimes artificially. On your end, an unpermitted demonstration is being organized, and you’re either its unwitting or knowing participants. I want to warn you against doing anything stupid. Apply for a permit and hold a rally. What happened on May 13 is over the line.