ST PETERSBURG, Russia—A plan by Russian gas giant Gazprom to build a skyscraper in historic St Petersburg is an object lesson in how power and influence work in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The world's largest gas producer, Gazprom wants to build a 320-metre (1,050 ft) high glass and concrete skyscraper near St Petersburg's city centre, listed by United Nations cultural watchdog UNESCO as a World Heritage site.
Opponents say the building–nicknamed "Gazoskryob" or "Gasscraper"–will ruin the city's low-rise skyline of canals and Baroque palaces. But it is about more than aesthetics.
The "No" campaign may be one of the biggest public rebellions of Putin's seven years as president–a period when shows of mass dissent have become rare. The fact St Petersburg is Putin's hometown adds spice to the row.
At an anti-Kremlin rally in the city in March when at least 2,000 people gathered, banners protesting against the destruction of the city's arhitectural heritage were almost as numerous as those alleging government repression.
The campaign has been joined by leaders of the usually quiescent cultural establishment–including figures like Mikhail Piotrovsky, director of the city's renowned Hermitage Museum.
The plan's critics say it also encapsulates many of the shortcomings of Putin's Russia: state corporations which wield almost unchallenged power and a bureaucratic machine that serves the Kremlin, but often seems deaf to public opinion.
"The protest ... is caused by the fact that people feel the authorities don't intend taking their opinion into consideration," Vladimir Vasilyev, head of St Petersburg State University's laboratory for political psychology, told Reuters.
"None of the things Gazprom and the St. Petersburg authorities have been doing in the past faced strong opposition. And they started to believe that everything they do is right and they can do whatever they want", said Vasilyev.
The project's backers–who include St Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko–say it is part of a much-needed renewal of St Petersburg and will breathe new life into a largely-derelict corner of the city.
"We've made the skyscraper so high so it looks harmonious and beautiful. It could have been lower but it would have been ugly," said Alexender Dybal, Vice President of Gazprom unit Gazpromneft, which plans to have its headquarters in the tower.
The critics point out that the new building will be directly opposite Smolny Cathedral, built in the 18th century by acclaimed Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
"This is not architecture," said Oleg Ionissyan, of the St Petersburg Board for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage.
"Architecture means to fit into the environment. It (the tower) could be accommodated on the steppe or in Malaysia, but not close to the Rastrelli's creation."
Matviyenko's administration says it has not given official approval for the tower but many people believe that is just a matter of time.
The site has already been handed over to Gazprom, with approval granted for an unspecified development. And Matviyenko sat alongside Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller at a presentation to unveil the winning design for the skyscraper.
There has been no formal public consultation on the tower. The opposition Yabloko party applied to hold a referendum, but the local legislature, dominated by Matviyenko supporters, kept postponing a decision on whether to allow a vote.
"They know they will lose," said Maxim Reznik, head of Yabloko in St Petersburg. "A referendum does not fit into the authoritarian model. In their opinion, it is not up to people to decide: people are scum, the nobility take all the decisions."
The way Russia's state hierarchy functions gives Gazprom considerable influence. Since a 2004 reform proposed by Putin to abolish direct elections for regional leaders, governors like Matviyenko report to the Kremlin, not voters.
The Kremlin in turn is intertwined with Gazprom. The Russian state holds a 51 percent stake, and Gazprom's chairman is Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's ex-chief of staff who is now a first deputy prime minister tipped by some as a possible next president.
A "No" campaign poster depicts a Godzilla-style monster in a Gazprom T-shirt towering over Smolny Cathedral. Matviyenko, portrayed as a member of the Komsomol, the youth wing of the Soviet Communist Party, salutes.
A caption reads: "Gazprom said 'It must be done!' The Komsomol answered: 'Yes sir!'"