St Petersburg's tower vertical defeated. For now...

The Okhta Centre protestors have achieved the relocation of the project to another part of St Petersburg. But it will be built, as will the much protested motorway through Khimki Forest, maintains Mikhail Zakharov. Protest movements are facing the serious possibility of running out of steam.

Mikhail Zakharov
15 December 2010

The St Petersburg authorities have decided to move "Gazprom city", also known in Petersburg as the "corncob", to a new location out of harm’s way. Public opinion is triumphant, although it should be preparing for new battles. The authorities are unlikely to stop behaving unpredictably, but the public protest will run out of steam. We have already seen what happened with Khimki forest. What is certain is that the authorities define as marginal any position that does not agree with their own and this means there can be no hope of consensus with the authorities, and in society in general.

The building of the imposing Gazprom tower so close to the historical centre of St Petersburg was seen as an attempt by the local administration to impose the interests of the political clan. The people of St Petersburg did not like it, protested against it, and forced a very visible climbdown.

A final decision has been passed to move the 400-metre Okhta Centre skyscraper to a different location. This was announced by St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko. "We came to the conclusion that this matter couldn’t drag on forever. We really didn’t want this ambitious project, which the city needs, to give rise to disagreements. We don’t want controversy, even if only a minority of people in the city is against the project," the governor announced. Now, according to Matvienko, it is necessary to think about how "not to lose the project for the city".

The construction in the historic centre of Petersburg (Krasnogvardeiskaya Square) of the Okhta Centre skyscraper, which will include offices for Gazprom, has been the most scandalous architectural project of recent years. Buildings higher than 100 metres are not permitted in this part of the city. But in the autumn of 2009 city governor Valentina Matvienko gave permission for the maximum height parameters to be quadrupled for the construction of the Okhta Centre. UNESCO and the Russia’s cultural watchdog (Rosokhrankultura) have expressed their fears for the fate of the city’s historical legacy. The tower project has many opponents, including leaders of the Petersburg branch of the Yabloko party, who are disputing the government’s decree in court. In total, the number of lawsuits filed by opponents of the tower in courts, including the Constitutional Court and the Strasbourg Court, already exceeds 50. Furthermore, since May 2010 President Dmitry Medvedev has on several occasions spoken publicly of the need to observe Russia’s international obligations to preserve the historic centre of Petersburg.

Everyone protested – architects, archaeologists, city residents, tourists, the Petersburg intelligentsia and the proletariat. Now the authorities and omnipotent Gazprom have climbed down.

The feeling that “truth had prevailed” gave rise to a degree of excitement in the newsroom. For a long time progressive society had fought to stop the construction of the Okhta Centre so as not to spoil the appearance of this historic city – and now it had won. The European city of St Petersburg was destined to be the first to react in the European manner.

We should, however, moderate our excitement and hold back on the congratulations. The construction has not been cancelled: a decision has been taken to move it. But where to? This will soon become clear. There are already a number of proposals. The director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky thinks that Okhta Centre should be moved 5 km further up the Neva. He believes that the governor’s proposal to revisit other options for locating the business centre is important.

The authorities live in their world of illusions, in which the corncob has more active and passive supporters, than active and passive opponents

Film director Alexander Sokurov already has six locations in mind. He says that all the possible sites have been discussed with the defenders of the city and plans to raise this issue at a meeting with the governor scheduled for 10 December. But there can be no certainty that outrages such as the removal of protected status from archaeological monuments will not be repeated at that meeting. In fact, it is more than likely that they will be, but with even greater cynicism.

The second issue, which stems directly from the first, is that when society tries to get something from the authorities and business, it expends a great deal of energy in the process, along with symbolic capital (the authorities and various PR teams usually do their best to discredit public figures throughout the conflict). In a new battle that starts from scratch, there may not be enough energy left, even if the proposed site were to be in place of the Alexander column on Palace Square. If the proposal is a little more modest, then there may even be no particular interest at all.

There are many examples of this – just take Khimki forest, for instance. The way through the trees has almost been cleared, and Vedomosti newspaper reports that the process will be completed and the highway laid, as was planned from the start. Concerts can’t be held in the current weather conditions; the professional protestors, the people who write about it, and even those who read about it, are experiencing a degree of weariness over the whole project. The protest seems to have fizzled out.

Everyone protested – architects, archaeologists, city residents, tourists, the Petersburg intelligentsia and the proletariat

The third and perhaps most important point is that Valentina Matvienko called the people protesting against the corncob a minority. Just like that, without any doubt whatsoever. The authorities are opposed by a minority. This is a statement of fact: there were protests, but not involving hundreds of thousands of people. We won’t mention the «subsidised» Gazprom public opinion surveys concluding that Petersburg residents support the tower, which were probably submitted – Matvienko is not naive, and she knows how this is done. We’ll talk about real support. Active protest is pitifully small. But everyone is a protester. A significant part of the population does not like the authorities. However, only 3-5 people out of 100 will go to rallies, even it is something important that they agree with. And then only if they are actually informed that this rally is being held.

The authorities live in their world of illusions, in which the corncob has more active and passive supporters, than active and passive opponents. In public opinion surveys, there is the distinction between “definitely for/against” and “probably for/against”. If it’s not the billions in cash that has blurred the authorities’ vision, then it is completely unclear what picture they have of the world. Hunger for investment and fiscal greed (or greed for a division of the spoils) are understandable – this is a familiar motivation. But here any person who disagrees is considered by definition to be in the minority.

Matvienko’s statement about bloggers illustrates this clearly. “Bloggers are a protest audience, especially the ones who write their comments at three or five in the morning. Many of them are completely uninformed about what is happening in the city,” the governor said less than two weeks ago, showing off her knowledge of computer technology. All the users are put in the protest audience, just as the opponents of Okhta Centre are the minority. The fact that the first and second groups, taken together with the pensioners, for example, no longer form a minority, is given no consideration.

This makes it impossible to imagine a situation where a consensus could be reached on issues that are important for the country – from economic development to foreign policy. It is sufficient simply to say that an inconvenient opinion is the opinion of the minority, and ignore it, even after “public hearings”. Citizens will have to prove for a long time to come that there are more of them in the country or city than there are representatives of the authorities. Even if the latter have Gazprom on their side.

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