Hundreds of Russian police surrounded a central Moscow square yesterday as a prominent critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin led a protest concert against a road-building scheme that is becoming a focal point for demonstrations against the Kremlin. More than 1,000 people gathered at Pushkin Square to protest against a new road that will go through Khimki Forest just outside the capital, part of a new highway between Moscow and St Petersburg.
Organisers of yesterday's meeting had planned a protest concert by Yuri Shevchuk, one of Russia's best-known rock musicians, who confronted Mr Putin about democratic freedoms this year during a televised meeting.
But police surrounded the square and refused to allow any equipment in, forcing the singer to sing without a microphone through a barely functioning loudspeaker, from a makeshift stage. "Khimki Forest has become a symbol," said Mr Shevchuk before the concert. "It doesn't matter where you live. Everywhere there are environmental problems, and soulless bureaucrats who do all they can to make sure we have no fields, no forests and no rivers. They destroy it all and turn it into money to line their own pockets."
Activists say that there are several alternative routes for the highway that would avoid the forest. The long-running protest has led to several activists being detained, facing court cases and fines.
"All we want to do is breathe clean air," shouted Evgeniya Chirikova, one of the group's most prominent activists, at yesterday's meeting. "Can you hear us, Mr President? What else do we have to do to make ourselves heard?"
Ms Chirikova has been detained by police on several occasions, and after emerging from a courtroom three weeks ago was bundled into an unmarked car by police and driven away. She was later released.
Yesterday, Shevchuk sang songs including one called "When the oil runs out", which talks about a bright future for Russia when the country stops relying on exports of natural resources. In May, he confronted Mr Putin during a televised meeting between the prime minister and cultural figures in St Petersburg.
Shevchuk complained that Russia was ruled by "dukes and princes with sirens on their cars", and asked Mr Putin if he really wanted a society with real democracy where "people stop being afraid of policemen on the street".
In one of the most frank discussions that Mr Putin has faced in his decade in power, Mr Shevchuk also asked why police break up opposition rallies brutally. A visibly irritated Mr Putin said that "without a normal democratic development this country will have no future", and said protests should be allowed, within reason. But this did not stop police from dispersing, with their usual vigour, a large protest rally in Moscow a few days later .
Yesterday's meeting was allowed, but police blocked entrance to people trying to watch the impromptu concert. The Moscow Mayor's office said that it had allowed only a meeting, and not a concert, hence the banning of loudspeakers and other equipment.
Artemy Troitsky, a well-known music critic who spoke at the rally, said: "Khimki Forest has become a metaphor for everything that is wrong with Russia, like Chekhov's Cherry Orchard once was. Many of the people here are not particularly political, but by their actions, the authorities have turned this from an environmental protest into a political one."
In a separate protest, police detained two prominent opposition leaders, including the former deputy prime minister, Boris Nemtsov. Mr Nemtsov and Mikhail Schneider were detained for leading about 100 protesters through Moscow carrying a large Russian flag.
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