Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 8

At the same time, the fiasco involving St. Petersburg’s impending gubernatorial elections was not encouraging. It suggested that the president-elect’s approach to politics was based on a hyper-pragmatism bordering on amorality. Back in February, Putin, then acting head of state, had joined Anatoly Chubais and other founding members of the “St. Petersburg group” of economic reformers for the funeral of the group’s spiritual father–Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of post-Soviet Russia’s second city. In and around the funeral, Chubais and Putin, both of who had worked in Sobchak’s administration, declared that Sobchak’s fatal heart attack had been the result of “persecution.” Without naming names, they were clearly referring to incumbent St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, who had revved up corruption investigations against his predecessor, eventually driving Sobchak out of the country.

It seemed to be almost a matter of honor for Sobchak’s disciples to go after Yakovlev. What is more, as they correctly noted, St. Petersburg had become increasingly criminalized under Yakovlev’s administration, with contract killings an almost daily event. Yet rather than picking the candidate most likely to unseat Yakovlev, former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, the Kremlin’s choice apparently fell on Valentina Matvienko, the government’s deputy prime minister in charge of social affairs. The word “apparently” is important here, given that Putin never directly endorsed her, but rather made nice noises about her after she declared her candidacy. On April 4, however, the Kremlin summoned Matvienko back from her vacation, and two days later she quit the governor’s race. In her version, Putin asked her to withdraw her candidacy in order to help the Kremlin work on the new cabinet. Putin, slippery as ever, said he had not asked her to withdraw. The Russian media and various observers posited that the Kremlin had simply realized that she had no chance against Yakovlev, whose approval rating in St. Petersburg was running above sixty percent. It remained a mystery why Stepashin’s candidacy had been nixed.

The day before Matvienko dropped out of the race, Putin’s plane made an “unscheduled” stop in St. Petersburg on the way to Murmansk, ostensibly due to bad weather. Putin had a long meeting with Yakovlev. Sobchak’s “persecution,” apparently, did not come up.