Protest as Petersburg skyscraper wins approval

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A skyscraper Russian gas giant Gazprom plans to build in Saint Petersburg has won approval from a key state body, officials said Saturday, as hundreds protested in a new show of anger against the plan.

Some 1,000 protestors turned out in a bid to halt the development of the Okhta Centre -- a glass skyscraper 403-metres (1,322-feet) high -- which they say will wreck the historic skyline of Russia's former imperial capital.

They were joined by figures including veteran rock singer and Kremlin critic Yuri Shevchuk, who also spearheaded a protest pressuring the authorities not to build a highway through a forest outside Moscow, an AFP correspondent reported.

In what the Russian press said was the lifting of the last formal obstacle to the tower's construction, the state body charged with assessing construction projects in Russia gave its approval to the project.

"The Okhta centre received a positive assessment from Glavgosekspertiza. Thus the project continues to pass through all stages of approval," the Okhta Centre said in a statement on the Interfax news agency.

"The results show it is possible to build a tall building on this land," the statement said, adding that the last remaining document required was formal planning permission from the Petersburg authorities.

There was no immediate comment from Glavgosekspertiza, which answers to the ministry of regional development.

The Kommersant newspaper said the approval meant that now only intervention at the highest level from the Russian leadership could prevent formal planning permission being granted.

"The skyscraper is a symbol of the cynicism of the authorities," said one of the protestors, Leonid Vitalevsky, 42. "They are indifferent to everything except money."

The protest was officially sanctioned and although police were present they did nothing to impede it taking place. Shevchuk spoke out against the plan and sang one of his best-loved songs "Motherland".

"We are all here because we need to save great architecture and because we have self-respect," he said. "We are not slaves."

The Saint Petersburg-based singer, a veteran of the Soviet dissident rock movement in the then Leningrad, in August led a protest in Moscow against the building of a highway through Khimki forest outside the city.

Days after that protest, President Dmitry Medvedev ordered plans to build the road to be suspended pending a review, in a rare response by the authorities to a popular protest movement.

Saint Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko said she was in favour of dialogue but contended more was being done in the city that ever before for preserving its historic centre, the Interfax news agency reported.

The planned construction of the building has already worried UNESCO, which has warned that Saint Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great in 1703, risks being excluded from its world heritage list if the tower is built.

It has also proved massively controversial among Saint Petersburg residents, who cling fiercely to their elegant city's distinctiveness from the urban chaos and breakneck expansion of Moscow.

Lawmaker for the local Petersburg parliament Sergei Malkov told Moscow Echo that the approval of the tower was "a nonsense for any Petersburger".

"The only means left to us are extra-parliamenatary, in other words, meetings, protests and pickets. The people will protest not only against the construction but against Saint Petersburg becoming a second Moscow."

© 2010 AFP

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