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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Children Take On Putin's Urals Envoy

Yekaterinburg, Ural Mountains -- Few expected General Pyotr Latyshev would make friends when he arrived in Yekaterinburg on Friday as the president's freshly appointed representative to the region.

But in one swift move, the new representative for the Urals District has made enemies of thousands of children, parents, the police and even the local policemen's wives' rhythmic gymnastic team.

City residents are in an uproar that Latyshev is going to occupy one of the city's most prized buildings, a classical 18th-century mansion that once belonged to the merchant Rastoguyev-Kharitonov. It sits on a hill overlooking the regional parliament building and has been the home for the last 63 years to the city's childrens center, Dom Kultury Tvorchestvo.

About 4,000 children now study 300 subjects from ballroom dancing to mountain climbing at the center for free.

Latyshev is one of the seven envoys President Vladimir Putin appointed earlier this year to represent him in seven newly created federal districts across the country. The envoys are expected to help Putin restore central control over the 89 regions and tame regional governors.

Latyshev is also not the first envoy to upset his district. In June, Northwest district representative Viktor Cherkesov raised the ire of St. Petersburg residents when he took over the city's beautiful Wedding Palace No. 3

Sverdlovsk regional Governor Eduard Rossel is supporting Latyshev with his move into town. The governor signed a resolution July 5 proposing to hand over the building to Latyshev and move the children's center to a local police social center, Dom Kultury GUVD. Putin signed an order agreeing with the decision July 28.

As Latyshev swept into town Friday, he was greeted by several hundred protesting children, parents, grandparents and teachers gathered outside the governor's office. Holding placards reading "Defend Children in Action Not in Words" and "General f 1, Children f 4,000," the children sang songs and chanted while parents and grandparents looked on.

"We came here to protest against the closing of the center," said Olga Belaninova, 14, who studies ornithology at the center. "It's a great shame. We have a great set of friends and teachers there."

"I came because of what it means to my two sons," said pensioner Lyudmila Bondareva.

Her two sons are 43 and 35, but the center holds such special memories from their childhood that they return on special occasions, she said.

"It pains their hearts," Bondareva said, adding that her sons could not get away from work to participate in the rally.

Many parents attending the protest Friday said the governor is trying to butter up Latyshev by giving him the building, which counts among its graduates the likes of sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, artist Alexander Denyanenko and even Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Indian leader Indira Gandhi.

The mood was not any better over at the police social center Friday. Although officers described themselves as supporters of Putin, their disappointment and anger was palpable. "I don't want to believe that Latyshev will move there," said Mikhail Pavlov, head of the police union running the social center.

He said the police's main concern is that a move could lead to many children quitting classes and beginning to experiment with drugs f a serious worry in a city plagued with teenage drug abuse.

"A lot of our children are under threat," Pavlov said. "If that [the move] happens, we will lose a lot of children."

The police said their anger would probably not lead to pickets, but at least one officer said hunger strikes could be considered as a last resort.

Another concern of supporters is the contrast in the quality of space between the two buildings. The childrens center occupies nine buildings with a total area of 7,000 square meters in good condition. Although the police center is not that much smaller at 5,000 square meters, the building is run down and does not contain space suitable for classrooms, Pavlov said.

The childrens center is located on 5 hectares of grounds befitting an 18th-century merchant, while the police social center has a leaky roof that needs a complete renovation and cramped dark halls with mold crawling up the walls. "It's like a dump for a palace," Pavlov said.

Still, the aging building is the center of the police officers' social lives: the place where they host wedding parties, meetings for the families of police officers killed in action, and the classes of the policemen's wives' rhythmic gymnastic team.

Latyshev did not turn a blind eye to residents' anger Friday when he addressed reporters at his first news conference in the city.

"The representative will only move in when there is no conflict and when all the problems are resolved," Latyshev said.

"We value it [the concern] as a definite warning to the representative," he said. "Maybe in a way it is a good thing. We will be more attentive."

But other government officials gave conflicting signals, saying Latyshev would move into the center in the next few days. And Latyshev himself added on a provocative note at a news conference that he had heard children were being paid 50 rubles to protest.

Organizers of the protest vehemently denied the charge.

Meanwhile, teachers at the children's center said glumly that the children were the ones who were going to lose out in the end. The center's airplane-building section and choir have won international acclaim, said Valentin Popov, the head of one art department.

"The choir has traveled all around Europe, and tomorrow they won't have anywhere to rehearse," he said.