Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 69

Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko announced yesterday that she was dropping out of the race for St. Petersburg’s governor, where elections are scheduled for May 14. President-elect Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, made an unexpected stop-over in St. Petersburg, during which he held talks with incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, a move widely seen as a de facto endorsement of Yakovlev.

Putin said yesterday that Matvienko’s decision to drop out of the race was hers alone, and denied that he had asked her to do so. This, however, contradicted Matvienko’s own statements, and few observers have bought Putin’s explanation. According to press reports, Matvienko was summoned back from her vacation to the Kremlin on March 4 and asked to withdraw from the St. Petersburg gubernatorial race. She did so formally yesterday, and called on her supporters in Russia’s second city to vote for another candidate who is opposing Yakovlev–Igor Artemev, who represents Yabloko and served as St. Petersburg’s finance chief under Yakovlev before breaking with the controversial governor (Russian agencies, March 4-5). Last month, Matvienko entered the race against Yakovlev after former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin announced that he would not enter the St. Petersburg race and backed Matvienko as a candidate (see the Monitor, March 7). Stepashin was strongly supported by leaders of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), the coalition led by Sergei Kirienko which includes such luminaries as Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada. After Stepashin withdrew, the SPS leadership endorsed Matvienko, as it did the pro-Putin Unity party.

The fact is, however, that Matvienko had little hope of winning. The Kremlin had apparently dispatched some of its top PR “imagemakers”–including consultants from the Fund for Effective Policy, headed by the infamous Gleb Pavlovsky–to work on Matvienko’s campaign. They reported, however, that the cause was a hopeless one. A poll taken in St. Petersburg by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion over April 1-2 found that 64 percent of its residents approved of Yakovlev’s performance and that 55 percent would vote for him in a run-off election against Matvienko (Obshchaya gazeta, April 6; Russian agencies, April 5). And while Putin yesterday praised Matvienko as Russia’s most effective social affairs minister in recent years, there is speculation that she will not be in the line-up when Putin unveils his new cabinet next month. Indeed, an anonymous Kremlin official was quoted today as saying: “And, why, in fact, should we worry about Valentina Ivanovna’s [Matvienko’s] future? That’s her problem” (NTV, April 5; Obshchaya gazeta, April 6).

Late on March 4, Putin made an unscheduled stop in St. Petersburg on the way to the northern city of Murmansk, ostensibly due to bad weather. Some Russian media, however, noted that commercial aviation was flying in and out of both cities without any problem. In any case, Putin held a long meeting with Yakovlev, who said that the talks involved local and national politics. Afterward, Yakovlev could barely conceal his satisfaction (NTV, April 5).

In St. Petersburg, meanwhile, some of the organizations affiliated with SPS have put forward Yuli Rybakov, veteran human rights activist and State Duma deputy, as a candidate to challenge Yakovlev. Rybakov was backed by the local chapters of Russia’s Democratic Choice, Democratic Russia, New Force and Voice of Russia. Neither Yabloko’s Igor Artemev or Rybakov, of course, stand a chance against Yakovlev, and some politicians, including Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov and State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, were openly contemptuous of Rybakov’s challenge. Zyuganov praised Yakovlev’s professional and administrative abilities. Yesterday, the SPS leadership apparently tried to convince Irina Khakamada to enter the race against Yakovlev. She, however, refused, and said that the likelihood of defeating Yakovlev was very small (NTV, April 5). Another candidate is Yuri Boldyrev, deputy head of the federal Audit Chamber.