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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gazprom Tower Dispute Symbolizes Putin's Era

For MTA police officer directing a gathering of Yabloko protesters in front St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly in February.
ST. PETERSBURG -- A plan by Gazprom to build a skyscraper in St. Petersburg is an object lesson in how power and influence work in President Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Gazprom wants to build a 320-meter glass and concrete skyscraper near St. Petersburg's city center, listed by United Nations cultural watchdog UNESCO as a World Heritage site.

Opponents say the building -- nicknamed Gazoskryob, or Gasscraper -- will ruin the city's low-rise skyline of canals and Baroque palaces. But it is about more than aesthetics.

The "No" campaign may be one of the biggest public rebellions of Putin's presidency -- a period when shows of mass dissent have become rare. The fact that St. Petersburg is Putin's hometown adds spice to the dispute.

At an anti-Kremlin rally in the city in March when at least 2,000 people gathered, banners protesting the destruction of the city's architectural heritage were almost as numerous as those alleging government repression.

The campaign has been joined by leaders of the usually quiescent cultural establishment -- including figures like Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the State Hermitage Museum.

The plan's critics say it also encapsulates many of the shortcomings of Putin's Russia: state corporations that wield almost unchallenged power and a bureaucratic machine that serves the Kremlin, but often seems deaf to public opinion.

"The protest ... is caused by the fact that people feel the authorities don't take their opinion into consideration," said Vladimir Vasilyev, head of St. Petersburg State University's laboratory for political psychology.

"None of the things Gazprom and the St. Petersburg authorities have been doing in the past faced strong opposition. And they started to believe that everything they do is right and they can do whatever they want", Vasilyev said.

The project's backers -- who include St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko -- say it is part of a much-needed renewal of St. Petersburg and that it will breathe new life into a largely derelict corner of the city.

"We've made the skyscraper so high so that it looks harmonious and beautiful. It could have been lower, but it would have been ugly," said Alexander Dybal, vice president of Gazprom unit Gazprom Neft, which plans to have its headquarters in the tower.

Critics point out that the new building will be directly opposite Smolny Cathedral, built in the 18th century by acclaimed Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli.

"This is not architecture," said Oleg Ionissyan, of the St. Petersburg Board for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage. "Architecture means to fit into the environment. [The tower] could be accommodated on the steppe or in Malaysia, but not close to Rastrelli's creation."

Matviyenko's administration says it has not given official approval for the tower, but many people believe that is just a matter of time.

The site has already been handed over to Gazprom, with approval granted for an unspecified development. And Matviyenko sat alongside Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller at a presentation to unveil the winning design for the skyscraper.

There has been no formal public consultation on the tower. The opposition Yabloko party applied to hold a referendum, but the local legislature, dominated by Matviyenko supporters, kept postponing a decision on whether to allow a vote.

"They know they will lose," said Maxim Reznik, head of Yabloko in St. Petersburg. "A referendum does not fit into the authoritarian model. In their opinion, it is not up to people to decide: people are scum, the nobility take all the decisions."

The way the state hierarchy functions gives Gazprom considerable influence. Since a 2004 reform proposed by Putin to abolish direct elections for regional leaders, governors like Matviyenko report to the Kremlin, not voters.

The Kremlin, in turn, is intertwined with Gazprom. The state holds a 51 percent stake, and Gazprom's chairman is Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's ex-chief of staff who is now a first deputy prime minister suggested by some as a possible next president.

A "No" campaign poster depicts a Godzilla-style monster in a Gazprom T-shirt towering over Smolny Cathedral. Matviyenko, portrayed as a member of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, salutes.

The caption reads: "Gazprom said 'It must be done!' The Komsomol answered: 'Yes sir!'"

n St. Petersburg is at risk of being placed on UNESCO's list of endangered World Heritage sites because of a plan to build the Gazprom tower near the historical center, a senior official with the UN body said Friday.

Marcio Barbosa, UNESCO deputy director general, said Russia had until Feb. 1, 2008, to submit a detailed report on the project's impact, or later face sanctions.

"If the situation does not change, we will seriously be considering putting the site on the list of sites that are in danger," Barbosa said. "Being placed on the ... list is a risk today."