Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 69

Valentina Matvienko’s withdrawal from the St. Petersburg governor’s race, and Putin’s de facto endorsement of the front-runner, incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, have broader political implications.

First, both events again demonstrated where the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), stands in the political food chain. SPS leaders–including Sergei Kirienko, Anatoly Chubais, Yegor Gaidar, Boris Nemtsov and Irina Khakamada–had made it one of their top priorities to unseat Yakovlev, whom they blamed for the persecution of their ally and mentor–Yakovlev’s predecessor, the late Anatoly Sobchak. Last July (1999), Sobchak returned to Russia after fleeing in 1997 in the face of a corruption probe. Last month, on the day of Sobchak’s funeral, Chubais and others, including Putin (who once worked as Sobchak’s deputy), openly blamed Sobchak’s “persecutors” for his death from a heart attack. SPS leaders have also accused Yakovlev of presiding over the increasing criminalization of St. Petersburg. In late 1998, one of their close friends and allies, Galina Starovoitova, was the victim of an apparent contract killing.

Despite Putin’s reputation for being fiercely loyal, however, his apparent decision to accept a second Yakovlev term suggests that he is, at minimum, “flexible” when it comes to choosing between personal loyalty and political expediency. This is not the first time he has demonstrated this. Earlier this year, he seemingly gave the SPS–which had declared its loyalty to him prior to last December’s State Duma elections–the back of his hand when Unity made a deal with the Communists and other leftist factions in the State Duma to divide up the legislature’s key posts among themselves. The SPS was left on the sidelines, and few observers believe that the deal between the Communists and Unity could have been struck without Putin’s approval, given that the latter is essentially his political vehicle.

Matvienko’s decision to withdraw from the St. Petersburg race and Putin’s de facto endorsement of Yakovlev suggest that certain Kremlin insiders–namely Boris Berezovsky–remain very powerful. Matvienko’s decision to bail out reportedly followed a March 4 meeting with Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, who is widely viewed as a close Berezovsky ally. The newspaper Segodnya, which is part of the Media-Most group and hostile to Berezovsky, reported yesterday that Berezovsky held a series of meetings with Yakovlev in February. The tycoon reportedly agreed to end critical coverage of Yakovlev on Russian Public Television (ORT), which Berezovsky reportedly controls, and to supply a team of “imagemakers” to work for the incumbent governor’s re-election (Segodnya, April 5). During last year’s parliamentary election campaign, Yakovlev was a leader of Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), the coalition formed by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. ORT vigorously attacked all three OVR leaders, and ran a number of reports on Yakovlev’s alleged ties with organized crime.

Thus Berezovsky has attached himself to the all-but-guaranteed winner in St. Petersburg, while one of his main rivals, Anatoly Chubais, has been left with the onus of having pushed Matvienko’s failed candidacy. Berezovsky’s interests in St. Petersburg are not purely political: He reportedly would like to get control of the city’s port, a key transshipment point for oil (Segodnya, April 5). Berezovsky’s ally, Roman Abramovich, runs the giant oil company Sibneft, and Berezovsky is thought to retain an interest in the company.