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Gazprom Skyscraper Debate Sees Rare Rift In Russian Elite

The project for St. Petersburg's Okhta Center on display at the Arch-Moscow international exhibition of architecture and design at the Central House of Artists in Moscow.
The project for St. Petersburg's Okhta Center on display at the Arch-Moscow international exhibition of architecture and design at the Central House of Artists in Moscow.
MOSCOW -- Opposition to the Okhta Center, the $2 billion glass skyscraper the Russian energy giant Gazprom seeks to build in historic St. Petersburg, has been mounting for years.

Locals in Russia's cultural capital worried the 400-meter-high skyscraper -- known derisively as "kukuruzina" (the corncob) -- would destroy the integrity of the city's famed neoclassical architecture.

Since 2007, the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO, has warned the city it was in danger of being removed from the prestigious World Heritage List if plans for Gazprom's new headquarters proceeded.

But such warnings appeared to have little effect. City lawmakers passed legislation overriding height limitations. St. Petersburg's governor, Valentina Matviyenko, this month gave the final go-ahead for construction to begin.

(A live webcam feed from the site, available here, shows an active but not bustling site, with little progress made beyond clearing ground for the foundation.)

Growing Opposition

But then something changed.

A reporter from Russia's state-controlled Channel One television delivered an unexpectedly critical assessment of the Gazprom project on October 18.

"One of the city's most beautiful views can be seen from the Strelka [spit] on Vasilievsky Island," the reporter said. "But in a few years' time, the panorama will be ruined. When they build the Okhta Center, people will spend a lot of time erasing it from their photos."

The official artist's rendering of the Okhta Center
The lengthy segment criticized the tower as a "cross between Venice and Singapore." It showed views of the city's famous skyline, then superimposed an image of the skyscraper towering over treasured historic buildings like the Smolny and St. Isaac's cathedrals.

The Channel One report followed remarks by Russia's culture minister, Aleksandr Avdeyev, who said the plan violated federal law and that the ministry would go to court to stop the project.

Opposition has also been voiced by the politically connected film director Nikita Mikhalkov and the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Both are figures who usually have a good sense of which way the political wind is blowing in the Kremlin.

Split At The Top

The series of highly public objections have fueled speculation that the federal government is grappling with its own doubts about the project.

Experts say neither Channel One nor Avdeyev could have expressed opposition to the project without support from the Kremlin, which is inextricably linked to Gazprom, the country's biggest state-run company.

Dmitry Medvedev served as Gazprom chairman before becoming Russian president; he has since been replaced by First Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov.

Economic Development Minister Elvira Nabiullina is also on the board, as is Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko and Igor Yusufov, who is the president's special representative on international energy cooperation.

Mikhail Vinogradov, an analyst from the Petersburg Political Fund think tank, sees the mounting opposition as evidence of a serious division within the political elite:

"We see a definable split. It seemed until now that the Okhta Center was agreed on at the highest level. And no matter the level of discontent or opposition, there would be a decision in favor of building the center," Vinogradov says.

"It's no secret, though, that many people from St. Petersburg -- including those who are now in the political and business elite in Moscow -- were critical of the project."

Tower Unnecessarily High?

The project has faced fierce criticism from the very beginning. Lord Norman Foster, the British architect who served on the jury tasked with selecting the winning design, quit in opposition to the selection, saying there was no need for the building to be more than 12 stories high.

A demonstrator in St. Petersburg against the tower
The Okhta Center, as designed by the British-based firm RMJM, is slated to have 77 stories. If built, it will be more than three times higher than the spire of Peter and Paul's Cathedral, currently the tallest structure in the city center.

Francesco Bandarin, the director of UNESCO's World Heritage Center, told RFE/RL's Russian Service the agency is continuing to request that Gazprom reconsider the height of the building.

"The tower is the only problem, from our point of view," Bandarin said. "Its height is incompatible with the history of the city. We're asking for a change in the height -- that is, the design -- of the tower. We're ready to discuss new forms."

As for the site of the construction, Bandarin said UNESCO had no objections. "I was at the site in June, and so I have a good sense of what's going on there. They're carrying out a very careful and professional archeological excavation," he said.

Public Disapproval

Half of Petersburgers oppose the project, according to a recent survey conducted by a state-run polling agency. Some 3,000 locals turned out for a demonstration against the skyscraper earlier this month; a number of St. Petersburg musicians have produced music videos protesting the project as well.

The fierce opposition has prompted at times bizarre defenses of the building's size. A book on Gazprom published last year suggested the tower was meant to serve as a spy lookout on neighboring Finland.

"We've been following what people have been talking about. We often find that people who don't know each other will, when they meet for the first time, make the upcoming construction the first thing they talk about," says Yelena Minchenok, a member of the Zhivoi Gorod preservation group.

"You decide whether they're your kind of person or not according to whether they're for the tower or against it."

Gazprom's Cold Feet

Within the government elite, it remains unclear who precisely falls on which side of the debate, or why.

Gazprom, which is currently headquartered in Moscow, still nominally supports the project, despite the recent signals of dissent from the federal government. Gazprom has said the project will rejuvenate the region, providing much-needed jobs and investment.

Still, corporate enthusiasm may be privately waning for the $2 billion project, which was initiated years before the global economic crisis dealt a devastating blow to energy prices and Gazprom profits. If the energy giant is looking for a plausible excuse for pulling out of Okhta, the long-standing public opposition may prove a useful pretext.

Writing on the news site, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky suggested it had long been clear "the corncob would most likely never get built," adding that Gazprom's total debt "has reached $60 billion -- that is, 30 corncobs."

The energy giant, he concluded, "would have a hard time finding an extra $2 billion to build a business center. One which, if you look at it carefully and think it through, no one needs."

First Sign Of Infighting?

Such a scenario might also offer Medvedev a convenient and much-needed opportunity to demonstrate his professed liberal touch. Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Moscow-based Panorama think tank says it's an issue that Medvedev may be permitted to adopt as a populist cause.

Pribylovsky says that Medvedev has difficulty showing his liberal side because Prime Minister Vladimir Putin won't let him do so "with any serious matters, political matters. He only allows him to say a few things. But canceling the Okhta Center project is something that Medvedev could do."

Others, however, see the fate of the Gazprom tower as the source of a bitter, inner-circle war. Vinogradov of the Petersburg Political Fund says the recent wave of high-profile opposition to the project may be only the beginning of a protracted fight for control.

"If before it seemed that fighting was useless to those who opposed the Okhta Center, then now it's clear there's a disagreement," Vinogradov says.

"There will be a fierce battle. So far Gazprom is in the lead, but the initiative that they had is slowly disappearing. But still, of course, the political weight of their supporters is quite large."

Yelena Vlasenko of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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