MOSCOW // For two years now, opponents of an enormous planned skyscraper in St Petersburg, Russia's Imperial capital, had assumed they were powerless against the project, which they claim will corrupt irreparably the city's harmonious, hauntingly beautiful 18th and 19th-century architecture. The 400-metre-tall building, after all, was to house an arm of the state gas giant Gazprom, whose former chairman, Dmitry Medvedev, was hand-picked by Vladimir Putin to be his presidential successor. Furthermore, the most prominent proponent of the Okhta Centre skyscraper is St Petersburg's governor, Valentina Matviyenko, also seen as close to Mr Putin, Russia's prime minister and still the country's most powerful politician.
"We always assumed it was Putin who was behind the project," said Maxim Reznik, the head of the St Petersburg branch of Yabloko, a liberal party, which has fiercely opposed the planned building. "We knew there would be no chance to win if this was his brainchild." In a rare instance of public discord among the country's political elite, however, Russia's culture minister, Alexander Avdeyev, has accused St Petersburg officials of violations in securing approval for construction and asked prosecutors to investigate the legality of the project.
Mr Avdeyev's announcement last week has given new impetus to the Okhta Centre's opponents, some 2,000 of whom took to the streets of Russia's northern capital over the weekend to protest against the project. "Given that top officials never publicly criticise anything backed by the powers-that-be, it appears that this is not Putin's project," Mr Reznik said. "And if Putin is not involved, then we have a chance to win."
Ms Matviyenko and other supporters of the Okhta Centre have described it as crucial to the city's development and said that it could actually boost tourism - a crucial source of income for St Petersburg, whose palaces, churches, baroque architecture and picturesque canals attract millions of visitors each year. Opponents, however, have ridiculed the planned building as a giant ear of corn that will blight the city's skyline. Unesco, the United Nations' cultural arm, has warned that St Petersburg could lose its status as a world heritage site should construction move ahead.
With a largely apolitical populace and Kremlin-loyal national media, top Russian officials are rarely put on the defensive by public outcry. But the traction gained by the Okhta Centre's opponents has forced Ms Matviyenko to publicly fend off charges by her critics that city officials manipulated laws to push the project through. "I am surprised by this reaction, because at every stage Russian culture ministry officials - at least those working in St Petersburg - were kept abreast," Ms Matviyenko said in a statement. "We don't want to do and don't plan to do anything illegal. In our opinion, all procedures were conducted in strict accordance with the law."
Arabtec Construction, the biggest builder in the UAE, began foundation tests last month after winning a Dh50 million contract to work on the Okhta Centre. The company in charge of the project, ODTs Okhta, said in a statement yesterday that Mr Avdeyev was in no position to "correctly assess" the development because he had never consulted the company. The skyscraper, the company reiterated in the statement, is to be built "outside the historical part of the city and outside the Unesco-protected zone".
Critics say the sheer size of the building makes its location essentially irrelevant, as it will dwarf all of the city's other buildings and create a giant eyesore in its skyline. St Petersburg city legislator Sergei Malkov, one of three officials on the city's land-use committee who voted against the project (11 voted in favour, while one abstained), said the support from Mr Avdeyev was largely psychological but that it has invigorated the skyscraper's opponents.
"If there is a rift at the federal level about the project, prosecutors could take [Avdeyev's] appeal seriously," said Mr Malkov, who represents the Communist Party in the local legislature. The culture minister's appeal could also mean that a local court set to consider a complaint by a group of citizens would be less vulnerable to pressure from local officials, Mr Malkov said. "This really makes us more optimistic," he said. "It could really make the court take a more objective look at the issue."