March Plans Meet Official Resistance
Published: October 6, 2009 (Issue # 1515)
City Hall has effectively banned the planned March for the Protection of St. Petersburg, organized to protest the local authorities’ decision to approve the Okhta Center’s planned 400-meter skyscraper, or Gazprom Tower. The march’s organizers said it was too late to change the previously announced meeting point in front of Yubileiny Sports Palace and the time (noon on Saturday.)
On Thursday, City Hall’s Law and Order Committee rejected all six march routes proposed by the organizers, the Coalition of Citizens to Protect St. Petersburg. It also forbade protesters to gather near the Yubileiny stadium, saying that the organizers could instead hold a stationary meeting at a less prominent site in front of Baltiisky Dom Theater, 1.5 km away.
By law, the authorities have to provide a reasonable explanation as to why the location or route is not suitable for a public event, but the organizers described the reasons that City Hall gave as “ridiculous.”
“It’s the same as always; [they said] there are construction works everywhere,” Maxim Reznik, the leader of the Yabloko Democratic Party’s local branch and one of the march’s organizers, said by phone on Monday.
“It turns out that we cannot gather near Yubileiny because there will be — can you imagine — an exhibition of cats and dogs there. I don’t understand how we could possibly hinder the cats and dogs. They always think up any old pretexts, even the most ridiculous ones.”
Formed earlier this year, the Coalition of Citizens to Protect St. Petersburg includes 18 political and civic organizations, including Living City, Okhtinskaya Duga, Yabloko, Solidarity Democratic Movement, the United Civil Front (OGF), the Communist Party of the Russian Federation’s (KPRF) faction in the Legislative Assembly, and the St. Petersburg Human Rights Council.
Upon receiving a refusal from City Hall, the organizations submitted a new application listing 16 different possible routes of a march from Yubileiny Palace to Baltiisky Dom on Friday, Reznik said. The organizers expect an answer on Tuesday, but insist that the original gathering point at Yubileiny Sports Palace should remain the same.
“We have no choice, because all our informational materials told people to go there, and we refer to this, among other things [in the application to City Hall]: ‘Don’t create a conflict situation consciously, because there is no way out,’” Reznik said.
“As the organizers, we’ll have to go there, because some people will go there all the same, probably even most of them. We have no time to inform people about a change of location — unless they give us airtime on Channel 5 [the City Hall-controlled main local TV channel], for instance.”
The planned march found itself under pressure earlier, when no local printer would agree to print the March for the Protection of St. Petersburg’s eight-page newspaper. The organizers had to have it printed in the provinces and were expecting copies to arrive on Monday evening, Reznik said.
As well as an effective ban on the newspaper, disinformation has been used to confuse people about the rally. At least two kinds of fake leaflets were put in some local residents’ mailboxes, one giving the wrong date for the march and the other giving the correct date but the wrong location.
“There were no such things before,” Reznik said. “I think organizations affiliated with Gazprom Media are responsible, and are using money allocated to them for such activities.”
The St. Petersburg government led by Governor Valentina Matviyenko voted unanimously to approve the Okhta Center tower’s 400-meter height last month, despite warnings from UNESCO and other organizations and multiple protests from architects and Russian public figures.
The Town-Planning Code only allows heights of up to 100 meters in the area to prevent taller objects from affecting the city’s protected historic skyline, but the decision was taken to exempt the project from the law.
In a statement published in the march’s newspaper, the Coalition of Citizens to Protect St. Petersburg said that City Hall had “trampled on the law” and that those who took the decision, primarily Matviyenko, would be held responsible.
“We’ll use every legal means to have this monstrous decision canceled,” it said.
Reznik said the problems that City Hall was creating for the protesters were predictable.
“What reaction there can be? It’s only natural that they’re afraid,” Reznik said.
“It’s an issue that a large number of people are concerned about, and this issue, like a mirror, reflect all the vices of the current authorities.”