Russia’s Representative at UNESCO Slammed By Activists

Russia’s Representative at UNESCO Slammed By Activists

Published: July 11, 2012 (Issue # 1717)

Incompetence and over-compromising were some of the tougher accusations faced by Eleonora Mitrofanova, chairwoman of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee and Russia’s permanent representative in UNESCO, from local historical heritage protection groups as UNESCO’s 36th session came to an end in the city on July 6.

Speaking at the Green Lamp press club earlier this week, Alexander Margolis, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of the Russian Association for the Protection of Monuments (VOOPIK), spoke with frustration about the outcome of the UNESCO discussion, during which the participants skillfully navigated away from sensitive issues such as much-criticized rampant construction patterns in the historical center of St. Petersburg and rejected a new nomination among Russia’s kremlins for the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Local pressure groups had hoped to interest UNESCO experts in looking into the construction of Lakhta Center, the new planned local headquarters for Gazprom that has replaced the controversial Okhta Center project. However, Mitrofanova, who served as the session’s chairperson, avoided delving into the subject on the grounds that Lakhta Center will be located outside the historical center of the city and is therefore not under UNESCO’s jurisdiction.

Similarly, no debate took place concerning the current state of the historical center of St. Petersburg and the potential damage that planned construction projects would cause. The city’s heritage protection activists failed to get the organization’s experts to comment on the situation or examine the lengthy list of historic buildings that have been demolished since former city governor Valentina Matviyenko took office in 2003 and adopted investor-friendly construction policies that resulted in a loss of crumbling historical mansions that the city had neither the resources nor political will to restore.

Mitrofanova distanced herself from the discussion and opted out of a unified approach to the situation, saying that such issues have to be examined on a “case by case” basis and pointing out that not every building located in the historical center has a cultural significance.

“At least Eleonora Mitrofanova was honest enough to admit that she does not really know the city of St. Petersburg,” said Margolis.

Nor did the pressure groups manage to persuade Mitrofanova or any of her counterparts to offer a comment on the recent restoration of the Summer Gardens, which were this spring restored to their historic splendor as conceived in the original plan in the era of Peter the Great. The restoration caused something of a scandal, with a number of local experts criticizing the restoration concept as kitsch and accusing the plan’s ideologists of making the gardens claustrophobic and cluttering them with fake sculptures.

During the course of the session, the delegates had planned to discuss Russia’s report on fulfilling UNESCO’s recommendations regarding the preservation of the historical center of St. Petersburg, which is under the organization’s jurisdiction. Critics say a coherent legal framework that would ensure that the country adheres to UNESCO’s principles of protecting historical heritage sites is lacking in Russia. The report’s review has now been moved to 2014 because the Russian side has failed to finalize it.

No reaction followed an appeal sent to the session by participants of an international forum of non-governmental organizations on the preservation of world heritage sites that was held in St. Petersburg from June 22-24. In the appeal, the delegates drew UNESCO’s attention to Russia’s industrial policies, which threaten dozens of world heritage sites across the country, from the Virgin Komi Forests to Lake Baikal and the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Although Lake Baikal, where the Baikal Pulp and Paper Mill continues to operate and dump industrial waste into the waters and where a metals mining facility is planned to be launched, and the Virgin Komi Forests, where a large open-cast gold mine is being planned and illegal logging is rampant, did make it onto the conference’s agenda, the delegates decided against including these sites on the list of endangered areas.

While Margolis branded UNESCO’s attitude as sabotage, Mitrofanova accused local activists of exerting pressure on the organization and using strong language that sends a shock to the international community. She argued that it was not up to UNESCO to dictate to local governments what to do and force its opinion on them.

After two weeks’ work, UNESCO has reviewed more than 35 proposals of cultural and natural landscape sites nominated for inclusion on the organization’s World Heritage List.

The proposals included, among others, Lena Pillars nature reserve (Russia), Western Ghats mountains (India), Lakes of Ounianga (Chad), Mediterranean landscapes in Plasencia-Monfrague-Trujillo (Spain), the Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth (Germany), and archeological monuments in Al Zubara (Qatar).

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