The powerful Mayor of Moscow wants to close the city's pet market, one of the capital's best-loved institutions, despite anguished protests from traders and objections from the Russian government.
Stall holders in the Ptichy Rynok – it literally means "bird market" but also sells everything from tropical fish to rabbits and snakes – have supplied Muscovites with their pets since 1938. Sergei Aksyonov, who sells parrots and budgerigars, said: "Even Stalin didn't try to move us out. We are part of Moscow's history. Why don't they move the Kremlin or the Bolshoi theatre instead?"
The market is one of the most evocative places in the city and acts as an unofficial zoo for Muscovites. At the weekend, thousands of adults and children throng the narrow gangways between the stalls as they look at the animals or birds.
The decision to move the pet market out of Moscow was taken by Yuri Luzhkov, the Mayor of the city and one of the most influential politicians in Russia, on 29 May. The local authorities decided that the market was insanitary, cruel to animals in the winter and a nuisance to local residents. They ordered it closed by August.
Nobody believes this is the real reason that the market, occupying a prime site in the ancient Kalitniki district near the city centre, is being closed. Mikhail Kuzmin, who was gloomily selling goldfish from a small tank, said: "If somebody wants the land of the market to develop it for luxury housing or build a hotel here, there is nothing we can do about it. They will pay the money and we will have to get out."
In theory the market is only being moved to a new site called Sadovod on the outskirts of Moscow. But the 1,500 traders, many of whom work only part-time, said neither they nor their customers could travel so far. Mr Kuzmin said: "I don't have a car and it is complicated to get to the new place by public transport."
Alexander Pochechuev, the director of the market, said the move would mean the end of Ptichy Rynok. He says most of the traders will try to sell their birds and animals elsewhere in the city centre. That, he said, would raise the risk of disease because traders would not be able to use the veterinary service that the present market provides.
Last week the stall holders, who have held several protests, thought they might be saved at the last minute. The Ministry for Anti-Monopoly Policy ruled that Mr Luzhkov's decree was illegal and he should leave the traders alone. But the Mayor said he had no intention of obeying the ruling. His office said: "The problem together with the problems of the organisation of trade on the city territory are within the compet- ence of the city government."
Aleksei Kuznetsov, who has sold dog leads in the market for 11 years, said: "Luzhkov is the big boss here and he does not care. Apart from him, everybody likes us."