MOSCOW (AP) -- Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Moscow on Sunday to rally against a bill to tear down Soviet-era low-rise apartment buildings.
Protesters, mostly young and middle-aged couples, gathered on a central street to rally against arguably Russia's largest redevelopment project to pull down entire neighborhoods of Soviet-era prefabricated blocks that were built under and named for former leader Nikita Khrushchev.
City Hall has insisted the buildings, known as "khrushchevki", are too dilapidated and outdated, while many residents and activists see the plans as a ruse to make way for high-rises in some of Moscow's leafiest neighborhoods.
The State Duma rushed to pass the first reading of a bill on the demolition in Moscow last month which will force the residents in what City Hall says are dilapidated blocks to vacate their apartments in exchange for other housing. Faced with growing criticism, the parliamentary speaker, however, suggested postponing the second reading pending a public debate.
Carrying placards "No to the demolition of the constitution!" and the flags of their neighborhoods, Muscovites chanted "Resign!" in reference to Moscow's mayor and City Hall. Police estimated turnout at Sunday's rally as low as 5,000 people while volunteers of the White Counter group, which attends opposition rallies to provide independent crowd tallies, said just over 20,000 people showed up.
Alexei Matveyev, a 36-year-old bank clerk from a north Moscow neighborhood, carried a placard reading "No to violation of the constitution and property law." He said the bill under discussion is rushed and disregards residents' interests.
"People who live in these blocks bought the apartments in order to live in quiet leafy low-rises," Matveyev said. "We are happy in our house. We don't want to live in tower blocks."
Alexander Zeinin, 32, and his wife Natalya bought an apartment in Perovo, in the city's east, several years ago to start a family but now their building is slated for demolition.
"We spent a year and half on the remodeling. Why would I want to go anywhere?" Zeinin said. "We haven't had a good sleep these past two months. We're recently married and now we think if we can have children - what if they throw us onto the street tomorrow?"
The five-story pre-fabricated buildings to be torn down were built in the 1950s and 1960s to tackle an acute housing crisis. The demolition plans, however, ignored some of the city's most dilapidated housing in less attractive neighborhoods but included good quality apartment buildings in what have recently become expensive neighborhoods.
Under the plan proposed by Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, about 5,000 low-rises will be torn down in the next several years to make way for new developments. The mayor insisted that residents would be offered housing of the equal size in the same neighborhoods, but residents fear that they will be expelled from their quiet, comfortable neighborhoods to high-rises. The first blocks are due to be demolished before the end of the year, and Sobyanin said some residents would be relocated as early as this fall.
Sobyanin tweeted after the protest that City Hall would take into consideration "all substantiated statements made at the rally."
While authorities insist that the buildings wouldn't be demolished if residents vote against it, residents have been skeptical pointing to how the voting on Moscow's government website has been rigged in the past.
Fyodor Markushevich, a 40-year-old father of four, lives in a neighborhood in Moscow's west which has been recently taken off the list for re-development but he fears that once the bill passes the redevelopment plans would be redrafted again.
"Everyone is sick of it," he said. "We understand that we live in a city where everything is done for profit and it's hard to change that."