Red Square law takes fizz out of Moscow party

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AT MIDNIGHT on December 31 when Moscow welcomes the next millennium, all eyes will be on Red Square, where Russians traditionally gather under the Kremlin walls on New Year's Eve.

But this year the mood may be strangely subdued. Unlike past years, it is possible that no one will be drinking champagne and there will not be the usual flurry of wild bottle hurling. And - unbelievably on a Russian holiday - no singing.

The federal authorities have issued a law banning drinking, dancing and singing in Red Square in what appears to be an attempt to eradicate dangerous and drunken behaviour. If the law is obeyed, it would end a tradition. For years, brides and grooms, in full wedding regalia, have visited the square to quaff champagne before going to church. On Victory Day (9 May) people gather to sing patriotic songs, dance and drink vodka to celebrate the defeat of Hitler.

The place has been a popular rallying point for centuries. Under Peter the Great, noisy crowds gathered there to watch his enemies being executed, until he built a new capital in St Petersburg. Edicts from the tsars were bellowed out to the people across the cobbles of the square. The Soviets found another use for it, as a backdrop for their military parades and as the site for Lenin's tomb.

No exception is made in the law's text for the millennium celebrations, prompting one of Russia's main newspapers, Segodnya, to report yesterday that the Red Square 2000 festivities are now in danger. The organiser, the mayor of Moscow's office, declined to speak to The Independent.

This is not the first time efforts have been made to rein in the people on Red Square. The solution chosen by Tsar Vasily III (1505-1533) was to dig a moat to separate the square - then a squalid haven for peddlers and drunks - from the Kremlin. But this time it may not be so simple. Parts of the law promise to prove difficult to enforce, for it also makes it illegal to be drunk inside the Kremlin.