* State media, officials start anti-tower campaign
* Gazprom says not backing off for now
By Denis Pinchuk and Dmitry Zhdannikov
MOSCOW, Nov 16 Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, an
early supporter of a controversial project to build St
Petersburg's first glass skyscraper, is now expected to scrap it
because of mounting opposition at home and abroad.
The 403-metre (1,322-foot) tower, intended to house offices
of state-run gas giant Gazprom (GAZP.MM) by 2016, has caused an
outcry among inhabitants of St Petersburg, Russian opposition
parties and the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO [ID:nLN573166].
Putin has said he supports the $3 billion project in his
home town as it would help the economy of the former imperial
capital and revive a neglected corner of the city -- but that a
decision lies with the city authorities.
Opponents say the tower would ruin the unique skyline of the
city, often dubbed Russia's Venice. State media and some
officials have begun to express doubts after years of support.
UNESCO has warned Russia it could exclude St Petersburg from
its list of world heritage sites if the tower is built, as it
would dominate the canals and baroque houses of the city founded
by Tsar Peter the Great in 1703 as Russia's window on Europe.
"It is very likely that it will be Putin who will draw a
line under the project," said Maxim Reznik, leader of opposition
party Yabloko in St Petersburg, who is suing the city
administration in court in an effort to get the project dropped.
Putin's approval ratings fell in November for the first time
since the start of the economic crisis [ID:nL2370140] and aides
reacted with a campaign to improve his image [ID:nLD654404].
"Putin has always been against imposing his opinion on
citizens and those in the city who take architectural
decisions," said Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov.
He declined to say whether Putin could scrap a project
already approved by the office of St Petersburg's mayor.
Three years ago Putin ordered a key oil pipeline to be
rerouted after protests by ecologists who said it could endanger
Lake Baikal, the world's deepest lake, and its rare species.
Putin stepped down as president last year but remains
Russia's most powerful politician, and most Russians believe he
will run for president again in 2012."
Some officials have expressed concern about the project.
"Russia's Regions Ministry believes that it is not
reasonable to place a 400-metre building in direct proximity to
world heritage cultural sites," the ministry said last week.
Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev said in October he was
sceptical about the tower.
Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said chief executive
Alexei Miller, a close Putin ally, was aware the debate was
heating up. "We are continuing all work and there has been no
order to back off," he said.
Maxim Shevchenko, a popular presenter on the main state TV
channel ORT, conducted a fierce anti-Gazprom debate on ORT last
week, contrasting sharply with the usual image of Gazprom as
Russia's most important firm.
"By showing such stubbornness, Miller has managed to turn a
simple construction and architectural issue into almost a
political issue," Shevchenko told Reuters. "If Miller takes the
issue so personally, I guess there is only one authority for him
(Writing by Dmitry Zhdannikov, editing by Tim Pearce)