ST. PETERSBURG’S REFORMERS BATTLE A RUSSIAN TAMMANY HALL
Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 22
By Brian Whitmore
Several leading lawmakers running for re-election to St. Petersburg’s local legislature got an unpleasant surprise when the list of official candidates was announced last month. In addition to well-financed opponents, several legislators discovered they would also be facing challengers with names identical to their own, a well-known ploy used in Russian elections to confuse voters and defeat candidates. Yuri Kravtsov, the legislature’s ex-speaker, for example, will be running against an Aleksandr Kravtsov. Sergei Mironov, the legislature’s first deputy speaker, will be squaring off against a Sergei Mironov and an Aleksei Mironov. Oleg Sergeev, chairman of the assembly’s Public Health Commission will face another Oleg Sergeev. Mikhail Pirogov will have an Anatoly Pirogov running against him. And lawmaker Sergei Andreev, a veteran of the city’s perestroika-era democratic movement, will need to contend with three more Andreevs–Sergei, Aleksandr and Mikhail.
These lawmakers have one thing in common: They are all opponents of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev. Each is also a staunch supporter of a City Charter, akin to a local constitution, which places the governor under unprecedented public control. And none of them believe for a minute that the appearance in their district of a “double”–“odnofamilets” in Russian–is simply a coincidence. As Russia’s second city prepares for legislative elections in December, a stealth political struggle is being waged behind the scenes. The so-called “doubles” campaign is but the latest tactic in a long-running war.
The outcome of this battle–which pits a group of process-oriented political reformers seeking to establish a Western-style system of checks, balances and accountability against the city’s Soviet-era bureaucratic power structure–will probably determine how St. Petersburg will be governed for years to come.
This isn’t the fabled war between Communists and Democrats that we heard so much about in the early 1990s, although ideology does indeed play a role in the conflict. Nor is it the same as the more recent battle between Russia’s so-called “young economic reformers” and greedy “oligarchs,” though money and economic influence are at stake here as well.
The conflict in St. Petersburg is old-fashioned local power politics pitting two mutually hostile groups representing very different interests and holding radically different ideas about government against each other. The closest analogy in the Western experience to this struggle is that waged between progressive-era reformers and Tammany Hall style urban political machines in turn-of-the-century America.
SMOLNY VS. MARIINSKY
Formal power in St. Petersburg has always been centered in two buildings–the Mariinsky Palace, which houses the legislature, and Smolny, which holds both the executive branch and the city administrative bureaucracy. In the Soviet period, real power resided in Smolny, which was the Communist Party headquarters and the original base of operations for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. The Mariinsky Palace, meanwhile, housed the IsPolKom, the local government, and the City Soviet, the communist-era legislature–both decorative organs which took their orders from Smolny bureaucrats.
But by mid-1991 the St. Petersburg’s democratic reformers thought they had control of both buildings, and thus the city. In 1990 the democrats dominated elections to the City Soviet, and on June 12, 1991, as the city voted to restore its historic name, a law professor named Anatoly Sobchak was elected St. Petersburg’s first mayor.
Shortly after the failed hardline coup of August 1991, Sobchak moved his office from the Mariinsky Palace across town to the old party headquarters at Smolny–where the city administration remains to this day. At the time, the move appeared to symbolize the complete defeat of the old guard: The city’s first democratic mayor had, literally, occupied Communist Party headquarters. As it turned out, Smolny instead “occupied” Sobchak.
Rather than staff his mayor’s office with democratic reformers, Sobchak–arguing that “professionals” were needed to run the city–absorbed the Soviet nomenklatura into his administration. Soon, Sobchak would move to concentrate power in his own hands and rely on traditional Soviet-style bureaucratic means to govern the city. He also began to treat the City Soviet with increasing disdain. Following President Boris Yeltsin’s violent confrontation with the Russian parliament in 1993, Sobchak disbanded the legislature altogether and decreed the election of a new, smaller parliament–the Legislative Assembly. The new assembly was to be a toothless fifty-seat part-time parliament, one whose members would be expected to simultaneously both hold down regular jobs and legislate once a week in their spare time. Sobchak also retained for himself the right to rule the city with edicts from Smolny, on which the legislature would be powerless to veto.
As it turned out, however, the Smolny bureaucrats Sobchak relied on to govern the city soon devoured him. In the 1996 gubernatorial elections (the name of the city’s chief executive was changed to governor), he was defeated by his own public works deputy Vladimir Yakovlev in a close race. Yakovlev, who spent some US$15 million on the campaign, according to the local media, had the support of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, then Kremlin security chief Aleksandr Korzhakov and financial tycoon Boris Berezovsky. He was also backed by much of the local bureaucracy, which had turned on Sobchak.
In the new legislature, on January 5, 1995, Yuri Kravtsov, a soft-spoken lawyer who entered politics during perestroika, was elected speaker. Over time, a small group of professional lawmakers emerged around him. The assembly’s leaders tended to be veterans of the city’s perestroika-era democracy movement without ties to the old Soviet nomenklatura. They also were process-oriented reformers who saw as their primary task the creation of a system of checks and balances to keep the executive branch accountable. Among them were people like First Deputy Speaker Mironov, Public Health Commission Chairman Sergeev, Aleksei Liverovsky, head of the assembly’s coordinating group for legislation, Anatoly Krivenchenko, chairman of the legislature’s commission for local self-government, and Leonid Romankov, head of the assembly’s commission for education and culture.
Under the guidance of this group, the assembly set out to establish a legislative base for accountable government. Laws were passed creating a transparent budget process and establishing an Audit Chamber to monitor public spending, while other legislation attempted to fight graft in the city’s social welfare bureaucracy. Over time, the legislature slowly subsumed the executive’s decree-making power. The trend reached its peak this January, when the assembly passed, by two-thirds majority, a City Charter which–unprecedented in Russia–placed the governor under legislative control.
The Charter restricts the governor’s right to rule by decree to a few specific areas, upgrades the Legislative Assembly from a part-time to a full-time parliament, forbids lawmakers from working in business while in office and creates a new regional high court, called the Charter Court. It also created a local human rights commissioner and a secretary of St. Petersburg charged with making all government documents readily available to the public.
Yakovlev called the Charter’s passage a power-grab and accused Kravtsov, the document’s principal author, of harboring unspecified “political ambitions.” The governor sought both to regain unlimited decree-making powers and to keep the legislature a part-time body. He also opposed the creation of a city secretary and human rights commissioner. When he failed to derail the Charter, Yakovlev launched an all-out campaign to remove Kravtsov using all bureaucratic and financial means–legal and illegal–at his disposal. In the legislature, Yakovlev launched a proxy battle against Kravtsov, using an alliance between the communists and the so-called “governor’s lobby,” a group of lawmakers dependent on the administration due to their business interests.
Further, while chief executives do lobby legislatures in most democracies, St. Petersburg lawmakers say in interviews that what is going on in the assembly goes beyond lobbying and into the realm of improper favors, threats and coercion. Ten leading members of the Legislative Assembly released a statement to the media accusing the governor’s office of using bribery and blackmail to remove Kravtsov.
Some legislators, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they were threatened with tax audits and possible prosecution if they didn’t vote for Kravtsov’s removal and change their positions on the Charter. Yakovlev’s vendetta met with success on April 2 when Kravtsov was voted out. On that day, probably not accidentally, ex-Kremlin security Korzhakov made a surprise appearance in the legislative hall.
TAMMANY HALL ON THE NEVA
In March, during the height of the crisis, Galina Starovoitova and Yuly Rybakov, two federal lawmakers representing St. Petersburg in the State Duma, sent an official letter to the Legislative Assembly in support of the Charter and Kravtsov.
The letter implored lawmakers to place the city’s interests ahead of their own personal ambitions, concluding: “Whether we will live in a city with a European-style rule of law or just another nameless provincial town depends on each of your positions in this conflict.” Several days later, the apartments of Ruslan Linkov, Starovoitova’s press secretary, and Lyuba Amromina, a legislative aide to Rybakov, were searched by local police and prosecutors. Arriving at 6 o’clock in the morning, investigators searched Amromina’s apartment for eleven hours, threatening to handcuff her to a radiator if she resisted. Linkov was away from home most of the morning and had been warned to expect a search, so he made a point of taking with him human rights activist Yuri Vdovin, co-chair of the human rights group Citizens’ Watch, when he returned to his apartment. The two arrived to find investigators and police with automatic weapons waiting on the landing outside his apartment. Inside was Linkov’s 59-year-old mother, who had refused to open the door until her son returned. Linkov said that investigators showed him a search warrant and ransacked his apartment for three hours.
He added that investigators made anti-Semitic remarks during the search. Both Amromina and Linkov said the searches were an effort by Yakovlev to intimidate his political opponents. A week earlier, according to sources in the prosecutor’s office, Yakovlev met had with Deputy Prosecutor General Mikhail Katyshev, the official who signed the search warrants. “We are witnessing the ‘Lukashenka-fication’ of power in St. Petersburg,” said Linkov, in reference to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the autocratic Belarusan president.
Corruption fighters in the legislature have also been dealt with harshly. Public Health Commission chairman Sergeev was brutally beaten as he left his apartment in April by unknown assailants wielding rubber truncheons. He suffered a broken nose, ribs and a fractured skull and spent two months in the hospital. Because neither money nor valuables were taken in the attack, Sergeev’s colleagues–both friends and foes of his reform efforts–said the attack was related to his legislative work on health care. Sergeev had long fought to clean up the city’s scandal-plagued medicine procurement process–pointing an accusing finger at Smolny. He had been receiving threats for a year prior to the attack.
Yakovlev also had control of the airwaves. The city’s main television station, St. Petersburg Channel 5–and its flagship news program “Inform-TV”–produced a nightly diet of pro-Yakovlev propaganda which painted Kravtsov, his allies and the Charter in the worst possible light. Media which refused to play ball soon found the full weight of the authorities on them. When Channel 11, the city’s second-largest television station, began to report the conflict in a more neutral fashion, its director, Dmitri Rozhdestvensky, found himself the subject of a tax audit. He was eventually arrested in October. When the editorial staff of “MK v Pietere,” a feisty weekly tabloid newspaper, took on Yakovlev directly, the governor telephoned the paper’s Moscow-based publisher. Within days, the paper’s entire political bureau found itself out of work.
Moreover, in the local courts, the Yakovlev administration hasn’t lost a single important case since it came to office. Last year, Yakovlev unilaterally increased funding for St. Petersburg’s courts by some 14 billion nondenominated rubles (about US$2.33 million), despite the fact that the Russian Constitution forbids regional leaders to fund the judicial branch.
D-DAY IN DECEMBER
The pro-Charter lawmakers now say that Yakovlev is trying to oust them using all means at his disposal in December’s elections and emasculate the Charter through the legislative process. According to sources in the pro-Smolny camp, Yakovlev and his legislative allies have amassed a campaign war chest of between US$8 million and US$10 million.
“The city administration is trying to create a pocket parliament,” said lawmaker Aleksei Liverovsky, chairman of the assembly’s Coordinating Group for Legislation and one of the Charter’s authors. “To do this it needs to remove those deputies who are trying to create a democratic separation of powers.” It appears that the “doubles” campaign against Yakovlev’s opponents is only the beginning.
The governor reportedly has a blacklist of lawmakers–including Kravtsov, Liverovsky, Romankov and others who support the Charter–whom he wants removed. Allegedly at the forefront of the project is the shadowy Aleksei Koshmarov, the governor’s high-priced political consultant. Yakovlev and Koshmarov both deny this charge, though Koshmarov said he is indeed working against certain lawmakers, including Kravtsov and Liverovsky, who he sees as “unconstructive.”
To win re-election, the Charter’s supporters have tied their fortunes to the good name of one of St. Petersburg’s most trusted politicians, Yuri Boldyrev, a former Federation Council deputy who is now deputy chair of the federal Audit Chamber. While not running himself, Boldyrev has formed a political party called “The Bloc of Yuri Boldyrev” which is backing Kravtsov and the Charter’s supporters against Yakovlev’s onslaught. “One of the main things motivating me in these elections is fear,” Kravtsov says. “Fear of what kind of people will come to power in the city if we fail.”
Brian Whitmore is a political reporter and columnist who covers city politics for the Russian St. Petersburg Times. He is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of South Carolina.