Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 43

Last week’s funeral (February 24) of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak dealt a blow to the prestige of his successor, Vladimir Yakovlev, and cast a spotlight on the gubernatorial election due to be held in Russia’s second city on May 14.

The funeral was attended in force by all those natives of St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad) now in power in Moscow, including Acting President Vladimir Putin, electricity magnate Anatoly Chubais and former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin–but Yakoblev himself was conspicuously absent. Addressing those attending the funeral, Stepashin hinted that he would challenge Yakovlev for the post of governor. It was time, Stepashin said, for “the Leningraders and Petersburgers now living in Moscow to repay their debt to our city. I am ready to do that.” On February 24, Russian news agencies quoted sources in Stepashin’s entourage as saying that Stepashin intended to enter the race, but would not make an announcement until after the presidential election.

Stepashin may be waiting for a signal of support from Putin. There is certainly no love lost between Putin and Yakovlev. Yakovlev was close to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and served as a leader of the Fatherland-All Russia (FAR) bloc, which suffered a humiliating defeat by the Putin-backed “Unity” bloc in last December’s elections; Yakovlev has been busily distancing himself from FAR ever since. But enmity between Putin and Yakovlev dates back much earlier, to the first half of the 1990s, when both were deputies to Mayor Sobchak. In May 1996, Yakovlev defeated Sobchak in a bitterly fought gubernatorial election; after this Putin moved to Moscow, entered the presidential administration and began his climb to its summit. There had been rumors that Putin would support a bid for the governorship by Viktor Cherkasov, formerly head of state security (FSB) in St. Petersburg, now deputy head of the FSB in Moscow. It is not known how close Cherkasov is to Putin, but the two men share the same institutional background. Some sources say, however, that Putin’s support may not be the decisive factor, and that St. Petersburg residents may not be keen to elect someone seen as having personally jailed nearly a dozen dissidents.

Meanwhile, support for Stepashin is building. Yuli Rybakov, leader of the St. Petersburg branch of “Democratic Russia,” has said that his group will back Stepashin if he runs for governor. Boris Nemtsov has said much the same thing on behalf of the Union of Right Forces (Russian agencies, February 24). Stepashin can also count on support from Yabloko, because he is a member of its Duma faction. This will be an important factor in St. Petersburg, where Yabloko commands strong popular support. The fact that the city remains a center of the liberal right and center-right is bound to make Stepashin a favorite in the gubernatorial race, even though it may be premature to write off Yakovlev completely, as many in the Russian media are doing.