Russians wonder if Putin will move Russia's capital

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The Independent Online

When Russian rulers from Ivan the Terrible to the Bolsheviks wanted to make major changes, they moved to a new capital - a tradition that has some Russians asking if President Vladimir Putin wants to leave Moscow.

Putin's decision to receive foreign leaders in his native St. Petersburg coincides with calls to move key government agencies from Moscow to its longtime rival in the north. Now some Russians are wondering if Putin wants to move the capital back to St. Petersburg as part of his plans to revive Russia as a great power.

For centuries, St. Petersburg was the capital. Its palaces, cathedrals and fortresses recall the days of imperial power and glory, and its residents still regard Muscovites as uncultured upstarts.

Other developments have added to the speculation. The speaker of the lower house of Russia's parliament, Gennady Seleznyov, said last month he would submit a proposal to move the chamber from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

Banks and oil companies have quietly been moving assets to St. Petersburg. The share of Russia's financial assets concentrated in St. Petersburg has gone up from 5 percent two years ago to about 10 percent, according to Alexei Chaplygin, an analyst with the Center for Civil Society Studies, a political think tank in Moscow.

Lev Lurie, a historian and political analyst in St. Petersburg, says he has heard "serious talk" among high-ranking officials about moving the Academy of Sciences, the Culture Ministry, and the Constitutional Court to St. Petersburg.

Putin makes little secret of his affection for his hometown, and many of his top officials are from St. Petersburg.

"The Petersburg group love their city a lot and they are trying to help it," Chaplygin said. "Nobody used to talk seriously about the issue (moving the capital) - but now there is a chance to do something about it."

In his characteristically cryptic manner, Putin is saying nothing. But most analysts agree that he is trying to send a message by putting St. Petersburg at center stage again after years of official disdain - although they don't agree on what it is.

Putin turned tradition on its head by receiving in St. Petersburg the two foreign leaders who have visited Russia since he took power. British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori did not set foot in Moscow.

"This is some sort of a demonstrative act, a PR action," Lurie said. "But what it might mean is open to various interpretations."

Still, moving the capital from Moscow is a far-fetched idea, officials say. The project would cost a staggering amount of money, and Russia is broke.

While a government department or a federal court or two might be moved from Moscow, some analysts insist the talk of moving capitals is just hot air.

"There won't be enough money to move even one department of one ministry," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the Institute for USA and Canada studies.

And when Putin receives U.S. President Bill Clinton in June for their first meeting, it will be in Moscow.

Putin's elevation of St. Petersburg may be part of his call for close ties with Europe, some analysts say. St. Petersburg traditionally has been Russia's most westward-looking city.

"Every time talk about friendship with the West begins, St. Petersburg comes into the limelight," said Kremenyuk.

Or Putin may want a symbolic break with the Moscow-based, scandal-ridden administration of Boris Yeltsin, others say.

Ivan the Terrible moved the capital from Moscow to the provincial town of Alexandrovskaya Sloboda in 1564 and plunged the country into a reign of terror.

Peter the Great moved the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 1712 to underline his drive to Westernize the country. The Bolsheviks made Moscow the capital again as one of their first acts after the 1917 revolution.