A Thorn in Their Side

Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace on Gagarin Street, Petersburg
Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace on Gagarin Street, Petersburg, home of the European University

European University Faces Eviction for Plastic Windows
Maria Karpenko
Kommersant
January 24, 2017

The European University in St. Petersburg, one of the leading non-public educational institutions in Russia, may lose its building. Petersburg city hall has unilaterally terminated the lease agreement for the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace, which has housed the university since 1995. The Smolny claims university management violated the conditions for using the historic building by making alterations and installing windows and air conditioners. Meanwhile, the university had been preparing to reconstruct the palace, investing 2.2 billion rubles in the project, 670 million rubles of which were to be spent on restoring the historic section of the building.

On December 27 of last year, the St. Petersburg City Committee for Property Relations (KIO) sent the European University notice it was unilaterally terminating the rental agreement. As a source at the committee told Kommersant, the European University hd not fulfilled its obligations to preserve the mansion of Count Kushelev-Bezborodko, built in the nineteenth century.

Officials discovered the violations last summer during an unscheduled inspection. (The Smolny could not explain yesterday why the inspection had been necessary.) As a source at the City Landmarks Use and Preservation Committee (KGIOP) informed Kommersant, university officials had made alterations to the premises and installed reinforced plastic windows and air conditioners without providing authorized documentation and obtaining permission for the repairs. The Dzerzhinsky District Court fined the European University 200,000 rubles in its capacity as user of a culture heritage site.

The Property Relations Committee then deemed it possible to terminate the lease agreement. The European University challenged the agreement’s termination in commercial court, arguing it was groundless. The court adopted interim measures, halting the university’s eviction from the premises until a decision has been made on the claim. The first hearing has been scheduled for March 15.

Meanwhile, the European University had planned in the near future to begin implementing an investment project for adapting the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace to modern educational needs. The university estimates its cost at 2.2 to 2.4 billion rubles, 670 million rubles of which should go to restoring the historic section of the palace. The project has been in the works since 2013. Architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, designer of the Russian Cultural Center in Paris, won the competition to carry out the project. As European University Vice-Rector Vadim Volkov told Kommersant, the KGIOP had already partly authorized the reconstruction. (Our sources in the KGIOP confirmed that the methods for restoring the interiors of the palace that had artistic value had been approved.) Next week, the university had anticipated the KGIOP’s decision on the entire project.

“Given our intention to implement such an ambitious project, the KIO’s decision to evict us from the building on account of three windows, a plastic partition, and and extension that was erected under Brezhnev looks odd, at very least,” Mr. Volkov said.

The official statement on the university’s website stresses that none of  the violations uncovered during the inspection “put the cultural heritage of the palace at risk. They would be automatically corrected during the adjustment project as mentioned above.”

The statement goes on to say “[t]here is a degree of incommensurability between the claims of the Committee and the consequences entailed by the latter’s tough stance.”

Vice-Rector Volkov likewise noted that the clause giving the city the right to terminate the lease agreement if the university violated its landmark protection obligations had been added to the agreement only in April 2015 at the behest of the KIO.

“First, the KIO inserted these conditions in the agreement, and then showed up to check just this, certain they would be able to turn up violations of some kind,” Mr. Volkov suggested.

Maxim Reznik, chair of the education, culture and science committee in the city’s legislative assembly, believes the claims are politically motivated.

“Apparently, the presence of such a university, when all the rest have long ago been marching in step, keeps someone awake at night. In my view, the situation can be resolved in the university’s favor only if if the head of state [i.e., Vladimir Putin] or people close to him intervene,” the city MP told Kommersant.

In December of last year, Rosobrnadzor (Federal Service for Supervision in Education and Science) suspended the university’s license. The European University appealed to President Putin, who asked Vice-Premier Olga Golodets to get to the bottom of the matter. As Kommersant wrote, officials who attended a closed meeting concluded the claims were unsubstantial and spoke out in the university’s favor. Three days later, its educational license had been restored.

The university first encountered problems with oversight authorities in 2008, when it was closed for a month and a half [allegedly] for fire safety violations. Last summer, the Prosecutor General’s Office inspected the European University at the behest of Petersburg MP Vitaly Milonov. Prosecutors then gave the university two months to eliminate violations.

Translated by the Russian Reader. Photo courtesy of saint-petersburg.com

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