Silly Season In St. Petersburg

The Power Vertical

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s path to the Federation Council speakership looks more and more ridiculous by the day.

You see, before Matviyenko can take a seat in the upper chamber, let alone be become its speaker, she needs to be elected to a legislature — any legislature.

Once she has secured a seat in some local council where she will probably never show her face and surely never cast a vote, then either the St. Petersburg government or legislature can “elect” her to be one of the city representatives to the Federation Council. Then, and only then, can the full upper house elect her speaker.

But first she must actually face real live voters, albeit in a tiny municipal district.

Theoretically this should pose no problem. St. Petersburg is the hometown of both President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, after all. The ruling United Russia party has a powerful political machine. And of course there are all those administrative resources at her disposal.

But the problem is that Matviyenko, who has served as governor since 2003, is extremely unpopular. Moreover, allies of ousted speaker Sergei Mironov from his A Just Russia party are determined to make her bid as difficult as possible by fielding strong candidates to oppose her. And the opposition in St. Petersburg is feeling particularly frisky at the moment, and appears prepared to stage all sorts of mischief to embarrass her.

And this is where things start to get silly.

For days, Matviyenko and her allies have been playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the opposition. Initial reports indicated that she was planning on running for a council seat in St. Petersburg’s Aleksandrovskaya district or the Leningrad Oblast town of Lomonosov.

But the opposition got wind of her intentions when lawmakers from United Russia unexpectedly resigned their seats in those councils and candidates began registering to oppose her in the September 4 by-elections.

Matviyenko then pulled a bait-and-switch, registering her candidacy in two separate St. Petersburg districts, Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka.

But her candidacy for the August 21 elections in those districts — and indeed the very fact that elections were to take place in those districts — was only made public after the registration deadline, meaning opposition parties were denied the possibility to run strong challengers.

Dmitry Krasnyansky, deputy head of the St. Petersburg Electoral Commission, said the reason her candidacy was not announced before the deadline was because the head of the district electoral commission was “on vacation.”

On Tuesday, Matviyenko was officially registered as a candidate and today the St. Petersburg Electoral Commission gave her the green light to start campaigning. Matviyenko said she had not intention of actually campaigning since residents of the district have had ample time to evaluate her work as governor.

Denied the ability to challenge her, the St. Petersburg branch of A Just Russia says it plans to hold demonstrations on election day.

This whole comic opera illustrates how much has changed in Russia over the past few years. There was a time, not so long ago, when if the Kremlin wanted somebody to become speaker of the Federation Council, it would happen. No complications. No questions asked.

What we are witnessing now is more turbulence than has been customary in the ruling elite’s personnel policy than we have seen in awhile.

Sergei Mironov goes off the reservation and lost his Federation Council speakership. The Kremlin realizes that Matviyenko’s unpopularity in St. Petersburg could drag down United Russia in December’s State Duma elections.

But when President Dmitry Medvedev sought to solve two problems as once — finding Matviyenko a new job and filling Mironov’s vacant seat with a pliant successor — she dithered for days before finally accepting (now it’s not hard to see why).

And now, her election is turning into a farce.

I have little doubt that Matviyenko will eventually take over the speakers’ chair. And then the real fun will begin when the Kremlin tries to appoint her successor as St. Petersburg governor.

— Brian Whitmore

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Tags: Federation Council, Russia, St. Petersburg, Matviyenko

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