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Russia: St. Petersburg Sparkles For Its Shining Hour

A worker uses high-pressure water to clean St. Petersburg's Admiralty (RFE/RL) ST. PETERSBURG, July 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) --Russia is putting the finishing touches to preparations for the summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized economies to be held July 15-17 in St. Petersburg.

Workers on July 13 were hosing down the elegant white columns of the Admiralty, built by Peter the Great and among the oldest buildings in the city.

Like hundreds of other buildings, the Admiralty has been given a face-lift ahead of the summit. The city's main avenues have been freshly asphalted; the fountains that dot the city center have been scrubbed clean; and parks have been livened up with cheerful flowers.

President Putin's Hometown

St. Petersburg's baroque palaces and elegant canals will provide a grandiose backdrop, but this is not the only reason why the summit is being held here. Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a native of the city, has long wanted to restore the tsarist capital to its former glory.

By inviting G8 leaders to a city founded by Peter the Great 300 years ago as Russia's "window on Europe," Putin is trying to signal that Russia is an ambitious, open, and outward-looking country that is ready to take its place among the world's leaders.

"St. Petersburg is a very big city," says local journalist Fyodor Gavrilov. "It's the most northern megapolis in the world. The climate is very harsh, and the infrastructure is badly rundown because it hasn't been taken care of for several decades. It's obvious that something has to be done. Otherwise, the city will just collapse."

"St. Petersburg is not only a window on Europe, as Peter the Great wanted," Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin declared at a recent meeting of G8 finance ministers in the city. "It is also, without exaggeration, a window on the whole world."

Putin could have chosen Moscow for the summit -- land-locked Moscow with its face half-turned to Asia and still deeply suspicious of the West -- but chose instead the city that was built expressly to open Russia to the outside world. There is much symbolism here, as there is in the choice of emblem for the summit: St Petersburg's statue of Peter the Great mounted on a rearing horse, his arm extended toward the west.

Venice Of The North

Many city residents welcome Putin's drive to revive the prestige of the city dubbed the "Venice of the North."

St. Petersburg's Fontanka Canal (RFE/RL)

"St. Petersburg is a city created by Peter [the Great] to bring Russia closer to Europe, to the world," says Aleksandr Margolis, president of the St. Petersburg Renaissance Foundation, a group lobbying for the preservation of the city's historical center. "The West's influence on Russia was exerted on St. Petersburg and to a great extent the world got acquainted with Russia thanks to St. Petersburg. It is a city that is trying to revive its function and I'm convinced that this is the role it should play. It is its fate."

While today Russia's foreign community is concentrated in Moscow, St. Petersburg was once the country's most cosmopolitan city.

Peter the Great invited so many European specialists to build his new capital on the swamps of the Baltic coast that by the end of the 18th century, foreigners made up one-third of the city's population.

With the decision to move the capital back to Moscow after the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, St Petersburg became Leningrad and fell into melancholy neglect.

Looking For Investment

The idea of turning St. Petersburg into a venue for high-profile gatherings like the G8 summit or the recent international economic forum finds many supporters, who see such events as a way of drawing investment.

Fyodor Gavrilov, the editor in chief of the popular news magazine "Expert" in St. Petersburg, points to the potholes that line the street in which he lives, just off the Fontaka canal in the historical heart of St. Petersburg.

Thanks to such high-profile events, Gavrilov says, cash is being pumped into the city for much-needed repairs.

"In Russia, such events always attract investments in the industry and the infrastructure," Gavrilov argues. "St. Petersburg is a very big city. It's the most northern megapolis in the world. The climate is very harsh, and the infrastructure is badly rundown because it hasn't been taken care of for several decades. It's obvious that something has to be done. Otherwise, the city will just collapse."

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko (right) with Lyudmila Putina in St. Petersburg in May (epa)

Critics, however, point to the poor quality of the repairs and accuse the authorities of revamping the buildings lying on the foreign guests' official route, while leaving other parts of the city to crumble.

Traffic Jams

There are also grumbles about the disruption caused by large-scale events, in particular traffic jams.

"The streets are narrow, which creates traffic problems," says 32-year-old Zhanna, who runs a local retail outlet. "Traffic problems arise every time a forum or a summit takes place in St. Petersburg. When the economic forum was held on the Vassilievsky Island, I was stuck in a traffic jam for over an hour. Many of my friends are leaving the city and suspending their activities during the summit, because they understand perfectly that companies won't be able to function normally."

One suspects though that most will forgive Putin the temporary inconvenience of closed streets and traffic jams -- just so long as the high-profile summitry translates into long-term economic recovery.

And there are some signs that this is happening. After a decade of post-Soviet stagnation, investment is growing fast. After slumbering for over a century in Moscow's continental shadow, St Petersburg is stirring into life.

MORE: Follow the events of the G8 summit in Russian at the site of RFE/RL's Russian Service.

Other Russia

Other Russia

Human rights activists Sergei Kovalyov (right) and Lyudmila Alekseyeva at the Other Russia conference in Moscow on July 11 (epa)

STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLES: Below is a translation of excerpts from the statement adopted by organizers of the Other Russia conference, which was held in Moscow on July 11-12. The conference brought together leading nongovernmental organizations and activists in an effort to show that Russian civil society continues to exist despite growing pressure from the Kremlin.

We are gathering because we are united by the most important thing -- our disagreement with the current course of the Kremlin and a growing alarm for the present and future of our motherland. We are gathering together, despite differences in our views about the past and the future of Russia. We are gathering together although we have differing conceptions of the paths our country must take toward freedom and development. Despite these differences, we are united by the following:
We, citizens of the Russian Federation, can achieve our stated goals only by observing, preserving, and demanding democratic principles of the organization of government and society; unshakeable human rights regardless of national, religious, or social status; respect for the views of others that do not contradict the Constitution of the Russian Federation; freedom of speech; honest political competition; and justice in the distribution of the national wealth, which is created by free people.
We oppose the transformation of Russia into a country ruled by bureaucratic whimsy; where the institutes of popular power and civil society are systematically destroyed; where the electoral process is completely controlled by the executive branch and, therefore, turned into a farce; and where the authorities demonstrate contempt for the interests of the majority of the population.

Lyudmila Alekseyeva, Moscow Helsinki Group; Viktor Anpilov, Working Russia; Mikhail Delyagin, Institute of Problems of Globalization; Yury Dzhibladze, Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights; Andrei Illarionov, Institute of Economic Analysis; Garry Kasparov, United Civic Front; Mikhail Kasyanov, Popular Democratic Union; Eduard Limonov, National Bolshevik Party; Yelena Lukyanova, lawer; Vladimir Ryzhkov, Republican Party; Georgy Satarov, INDEM foundation.


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