Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 91

Russia has just seen its first political primary. On May 4 in St. Petersburg, local voters were asked to choose a single candidate to represent the city’s liberal-right electorate in the gubernatorial election set for May 14. The experiment was carried out according to an agreement reached between the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS), who put forward State Duma Deputy Yuli Rybakov, and Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party, who backed State Duma Deputy Igor Artemev.

The atmosphere was tense. On the eve of the vote, several national newspapers claimed that the agreement between the SPS and Yabloko was on the verge of collapse. Representatives of both groups denied these “provocations,” accusing the administration of incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev of having cooked them up (Russian agencies, May 2).

The media treated the whole idea of a primary with skepticism bordering on ridicule, and expressed doubts that the election would be held. The voting, however, went ahead successfully and without major incident. Some 20,000 Petersburg residents took part, with 72 percent voting for Artemev and 28 percent for Rybakov (Russian agencies, May 4-5). Rybakov duly honored the terms of the agreement and withdrew in favor of Artemev. For his part, Artemev expressed confidence that Yabloko and the SPS would work together throughout the rest of the campaign, and recalled that the two groups had formed a joint faction in a previous St. Petersburg legislative assembly. “The disagreements between the democrats in the northern capital have always been significantly less than in other Russian cities,” Artemev asserted.

The experiment attracted considerable attention nationally and coincided with the national media’s launching of a debate over the possibility of transferring the Russian parliament from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Indeed, this idea came to overshadow the St. Petersburg primary (Russian agencies, April 29). Artemev reacted skeptically, arguing that Russian tradition would rather require that the Russian president’s headquarters be located in St. Petersburg (Russian agencies, May 3). But Governor Yakovlev, the main opponent of St. Petersburg’s liberal-right, voiced support for the idea of moving parliament, and even produced a project for building a new parliamentary center in St. Petersburg (Radio Ekho Moskvy, April 29).

No one in Moscow is in fact taking the idea seriously. In St. Petersburg, however, the idea of moving the Russian parliament is popular among voters and has helped to raise Yakovlev’s already-high profile. Opinion polls indicate that, even though Yabloko and the SPS have agreed on a single candidate, the incumbent governor is likely to win the election in the first round with some 66 percent of the vote (Russian agencies, May 4).

The strength of the information campaign in support of Yakovlev’s candidacy suggests that he enjoys support at the highest levels in Moscow. This in turn casts doubt on the latest conspiracy theory in the national media, according to which the Kremlin is playing a double game. As soon as Yakovlev is elected, the theory runs, he will be transferred to some insignificant post in Moscow while the governorship goes to someone more “pleasing” to Putin (Versiya, May 5). This theory does not appear, however, to tally with the strong, if tacit, support that Yakovlev has received from the Kremlin ever since it became clear that Putin’s first choice, Valentina Matvienko, stood no chance of defeating the incumbent (see the Monitor, May 4).