A banned rock concert organised by environmental activists and Kremlin-critics went ahead on Sunday evening, drawing a crowd of some 2000 people despite fear of a violent police crackdown.
AFP - Some 2,000 people Sunday crammed into a Moscow square amid a heavy police presence for a banned rock concert to protest plans to build a motorway through a forest outside the Russian capital.
The numbers were far higher than for past opposition rallies in Moscow but the concert failed to get off the ground after police refused to allow amplification gear through tight security, an AFP correspondent at the scene reported.
However, veteran rocker Yuri Shevchuk, who opposed the Soviet regime and now the government of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, pleased his fans by climbing onto a stepladder and singing some well-loved songs without a microphone.
Dozens of police vehicles and members of the feared OMON anti-riot police, equipped with helmets and bullet-proof vests, thronged the square.
The concert's aim was to buttress efforts by environmental activists to oppose the construction of a highway through Khimki forest outside Moscow, which has become a symbol for Russians fighting for their rights.
While the demonstration on Pushkin Square against the construction of the road had been sanctioned by the Moscow authorities, they had explicitly banned the holding of a concert.
The police said there were 800 people at the rally, but AFP estimated the crowd to be around 2,000.
"We came to make beautiful speeches and sing beautiful songs. But we have a problem," Artemi Troitski, one of the organisers, told AFP.
"The sound equipment is in the car over there and the security forces are not allowing it to come on the square."
Several opposition activists were detained ahead of the rally, including prominent campaigner Lev Ponomaryov, officials said.
Another 20 activists, including Mikhail Shneider of opposition movement Solidarnost and ex-government minister Boris Nemtsov, were also detained in an earlier protest as they tried to carry a Russian flag in central Moscow to celebrate the official Flag Day holiday.
The Khimki forest northwest of Moscow is a "symbol of the civic struggle against the arbitrariness of the state", Shevchuk told AFP.
Shevchuk in May had openly challenged Putin telling him at a face-to-face meeting that Russia was being ruled by "dukes and princes with sirens on their cars" and demonstrations are broken up by "repressive" security services.
Shevchuk, one of a number of dissident Soviet rockers who made their names in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad), sang his famous ballad Rodina (Motherland), whose chorus was up taken by the crowd.
"It is our forest! Russia without Putin!," chanted the crowds. One banner read "Putin allowed the forest to be chopped down." Others shouted, "Give us sound!"
"We are here to sing that they can't destroy our forest, the lungs of Moscow, but also to tell the Kremlin, to tell Putin, we are fed up with them, their system, the lies which serve to fill the pockets of officials," said 32-year-old demonstrator Viktor Kalinovsky.
Authorities have repeatedly used force to disperse anti-government protests in Moscow, even though the country's opposition is weak and fragmented and its protests usually do not attract a lot of sympathisers.
One activist said unknown assailants had even sought to prevent the musical equipment from even reaching the site of the concert rally.
"Several bikers in black outfits and motorcycle helmets, their faces hidden, surrounded two Gazelle trucks carrying sound equipment for the event," Pyotr Verzilov, an activist with art collective Voina, or War, told Echo of Moscow.
The controversy over the road sparked a rare violent protest in July when demonstrators hurled smoke bombs and smashed windows at the local administration building in Khimki.
The Moscow authorities also appear to have been rattled by discontent over the handling of deadly wildfires that raged in the region earlier this summer and the decision of mayor Yuri Luzhkov to stay on holiday outside smog-filled Moscow as the crisis intensified.
Date created : 2010-08-23