Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 88

The final list of candidates has been announced for the May 14 St. Petersburg gubernatorial race: Sergei Andreev and Andrei Korchagin, both members of St. Petersburg’s legislative assembly; Igor Artemev, leader of the local chapter of Yabloko and a member of the Russian State Duma; Yuri Boldyrev, deputy chairman of the federal Audit Chamber; Sergei Klykov and Olga Lisichkina, both of whom are local government officials; Yuli Rybakov, a State Duma deputy and member of the Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS); Artem Tarasov, a businessman; and, last but not least, the incumbent governor, Vladimir Yakovlev. From now on, the list will change only if one of the candidates withdraws from the race (Sankt-Petersburgskie Vedemosti, April 28).

Nearly two weeks remain before voting, but there seems little doubt that Yakovlev will win. His position has strengthened so much over the last two weeks that he now has almost no serious competition. The main factor has been a clear change in the Kremlin’s attitude toward Yakovlev.

The decision of the Kremlin’s original favorite, Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko, to drop out of the race was a heavy blow to President-elect Putin’s prestige. Matvienko stepped down when it became clear that her poll ratings had slipped well behind Yakovlev’s. The Kremlin made it clear, nonetheless, that it did not intend either to withdraw from the race or to concede defeat. Instead, it switched its support to Yakovlev and made sure that he had the best chance to win. Putin’s involvement in the race increased to such an extent that the Russian media began to comment that he seemed to have joined Yakovlev’s campaign team (Segodnya, April 27). Putin traveled regularly to St. Petersburg and met with Yakovlev: he announced that he would attend the opening of a hockey championship being held in St. Petersburg; last weekend, he even broke with tradition by participating in the Easter service in Russia’s second city, not in Moscow.

Clearly, Putin does not intend to start his presidential career with a defeat in his own hometown. He apparently sees that option as more harmful than earning the reputation of an inconsistent politician or of someone who tries to bypass the law. Only by skirting the law, however, can Putin fulfill another plan about which the Russian media are writing with increasing frequency: the introduction in St. Petersburg of the post of a head of the regional government as a means of reducing the powers of the governor’s post. A bill on the creation of such a post has been introduced in the St. Petersburg legislative assembly (Russian agencies, April 26). However, this is happening just when similar posts are being liquidated in other regions on the grounds that they violate Russian law. It is unclear how this legal contradiction will be resolved in St. Petersburg.

Those of Putin’s former allies who had reluctantly agreed to support Matvienko’s candidacy now find themselves in opposition to the presidential team, which is supporting Yakovlev. Tactical considerations have forced them into talks with the Kremlin’s opponents–the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko. And while once there seemed to be a chance of creating a broad right-of-center coalition in St. Petersburg under the president’s aegis, now such a coalition could only be anti-Kremlin.

For the Right, the only way to prevent Yakovlev from winning in the first round is to put forward a single candidate. For the first time in Russia, such a candidate is to be chosen in improvised “primaries.” Today, May 4, 80 polling stations will be open; polling will also be carried on via the Internet. Representatives of the SPS (whose candidate is Rybakov) and of Yabloko (Artemev) will meet on May 6 and decide on a single candidate (Radio Ekho Moskvy, April 25; Russian agencies, April 28). However, this is unlikely to change the situation significantly. In addition to Rybakov and Artemev, two other strong center-right candidates remain. They are Yuri Boldyrev and Artem Tarasov, neither of whom plans to participate in the primaries. The right wing vote seems almost certain, therefore, to be split, offering Yakovlev a real chance of a first-round victory.