Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday called for a compromise to ease tensions over a plan to build a cathedral in a popular park in the nation's fourth-largest city that has sparked protests and drawn nationwide attention.
Unsanctioned protests in the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg were held for four consecutive days near a central park where two local tycoons are planning to build a new cathedral.
Several dozen have been detained, and 21 of them have been handed jail terms ranging from 2 to 10 days for disobeying police, according to local authorities.
The protests reflected outrage over authorities pushing ahead with the project despite critics' complaints that the massive church would take away rare green and recreational space in the city of 1.5 million people.
Asked about the controversy at a meeting with provincial journalists, Putin said the authorities must reach out to opponents of the project and work out a compromise.
"A cathedral must help unite people, not cause a rift," he said.
The president suggested an opinion survey to determine public attitude to the project, and immediately after he spoke local authorities in Yekaterinburg promised to help organize it.
Yekaterinburg Mayor Alexander Vysokinskiy went to a square near the park where protesters were gathering and promised to hold a survey and halt the construction project pending its results.
"We need to bring the process into a civilized framework," the mayor said, surrounded by protesters chanting "Shame!" and "Resign!" "We don't need clashes and arrests."
Protests in Yekaterinburg marked a rare example of defiance of the authorities in Russia, where harsh laws envisaging criminal punishment for taking part in unsanctioned rallies have discouraged many from joining them.
In an apparent reaction to the showdown, the mayor of Krasnoyarsk, a major city in Siberia hundreds of miles east of Yekaterinburg, ditched plans to build a similarly large cathedral in the city center, citing the lack of green spaces. In Nizhny Novgorod, a city on the Volga River, several people took to the streets with banners in support of Yekaterinburg's park defenders.
Critics saw the Yekaterinburg cathedral project as a glaring example of authorities and business groups teaming up to the detriment of public interest.
Alexei Navalny, Russia's leading opposition leader, on Thursday released an investigation into the wealth — including a lavish London mansion — of Igor Altushkin, a billionaire tycoon sponsoring the cathedral project.
He pointed out that Yekaterinburg has plenty of old Orthodox churches, many of them neglected, and argued that the plan for a new cathedral was driven by Altushkin's ego.
Russian website The Bell reported Wednesday that the Yekaterinburg cathedral is part of a larger development project, also including the construction of a business center and a hotel nearby. It cited publicly available documents submitted for public discussion.
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refuted the reports, saying that he had spoken to the developer and that there were no such plans.