Gazprom tower puts further strain on Medvedev-Putin relations


A state-run gas company plans to build a skyscraper in St Petersburg – which would destroy the celestial lines of the city

RUSSIAN ENERGY giant Gazprom’s plan to build a 400m skyscraper in St Petersburg has bitterly divided the city’s elite, and could jeopardise its status as a Unesco world heritage site and put more strain on relations between the country’s president and prime minister.

Europe’s tallest tower would dwarf the graceful palaces and canals of the architectural jewel founded by Tsar Peter the Great, but St Petersburg’s authorities insist it is needed to energise a deprived part of the city and secure Gazprom’s huge tax payments for their budget.

With high-profile figures campaigning for and against the project, the final decision will surely be made by Russia’s ruling duo – president Dmitry Medvedev and prime minister Vladimir Putin, both of whom hail from St Petersburg.

The pair worked together in the city’s administration before Putin became Russia’s president in 2000. After serving the constitutional maximum of two consecutive terms in office, Putin moved to the premier’s office in 2008 and handed Medvedev the keys to the Kremlin.

The men have co-operated closely in their “tandem”, but some analysts have seen signs of increasing rivalry in recent months. Medvedev blocked construction of a Putin-backed motorway and removed several regional leaders, including Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Medvedev has also criticised Putin’s government for its handling of the economic crisis, environmental issues and corruption, fuelling suggestions that he wants to strengthen his power base and popularity to thwart an attempt by Putin to reclaim the Kremlin in the 2012 elections. Russia’s constitution would allow him to return to the presidency after serving as premier.

The next big issue to expose divisions between the men could be the Gazprom tower, which has been questioned by Medvedev but is believed to be supported by Putin, who is very close to the state-run gas company and to one of project’s champions, St Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko.

The two sides appear to be heading for a showdown, after the tower received final approval from a key state watchdog – in apparent contravention of local laws banning constructions over 100m in height – and thousands of Petersburgers rallied last weekend to denounce it.

“When a house in on fire, you save your nearest and dearest – in this case, to save the great architecture of this city. This is our nearest and dearest, with whom we live,” said Yuri Shevchuk, a veteran Russian rock singer and a rare celebrity critic of the authorities.

“Secondly, we have self-esteem. We are not slaves, not cattle – we shouldn’t sit still and be silent while our masters do whatever they want,” he told the cheering crowd. Perhaps St Petersburg’s most influential cultural figure, the director of the world- renowned Hermitage Museum Mikhail Piotrovsky, is another scathing opponent of the Gazprom tower.

“It would be a big mistake on the level of a crime to erect such a building, it would destroy the celestial lines of the city and is a great example of arrogance,” Piotrovsky told the Irish Times in his office, which is located in part of the Hermitage that once housed the library and paintings of Catherine the Great.

“Now, only church spires break the city’s low skyline, but this would be a corporate building. It is also so arrogant because it would stand opposite Smolny Cathedral. If it was 3km up the river it would not be a problem, because Petersburgers need part of the city to be developed with new buildings and skyscrapers. But not in this place, with this arrogance.”

Some campaigners have criticised Piotrovsky for not being more outspoken, but he insisted that he was working hard behind the scenes to scupper the tower.

“Russia is a complicated country and there are many ways of changing or preventing things, not just demonstrations,” he said.

“St Petersburg also has a history of defending itself against threats: Napoleon attacked Moscow when it was easier for him to come here; the Soviets moved the government to Moscow and they destroyed it in the 1930s; and during the terrible 1941-4 Nazi siege our monuments survived. It’s a bit mystical, but this city does have a way of saving itself from dangers.”

Piotrovsky rails against an ideology – that he sees embodied by Gazprom and its planned monument to economic might – “that thinks money is everything” and speaks of the “shame” that would afflict Russia if the tower prompted Unesco to carry out a threat to remove St Petersburg from its prestigious world heritage list.

“Our enemy is money. Our rulers are not the enemy,” he insisted, referring to Medvedev and Putin, those sons of St Petersburg who now run the country.

“We hope – and believe – that they are on our side.”