Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 51

The past week saw the long-anticipated announcement by Valentina Matvienko, Russia’s deputy prime minister for social issues, that she intends to run for governor of St. Petersburg in the election on May 14 (RTR, March 10). Until now, the favorite to win was the incumbent, Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, even though he has not yet formally announced his candidacy. The fact that Matvienko has the backing of Acting President Vladimir Putin makes her a strong challenger. She already has the support of Unity, the main political organization backing Putin.

Many of those political groups which earlier voiced their support for an electoral bid by former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin have also announced their support for Matvienko’s candidacy. Sergei Kirienko, leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS), was the most categorical. With the observation that his main aim is to prevent Yakovlev’s re-election, Kirienko said that he was backing Matvienko because she is the most realistic challenger to Yakovlev (ORT, March 9). According to Marat Gelman, head of the SPS election headquarters in Moscow, the SPS will voice its support in St. Petersburg newspapers (Segodnya, March 10). In return, it will expect a victorious Matvienko to appoint some of its members to a coalition government (Ekho Moskvy, March 9).

Matvienko has also secured the support of the leaders of the Fatherland-All Russia (OVR) coalition–Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–regardless of the fact that in last December’s Duma elections Yakovlev was a leading member of the OVR slate (National News Service, March 6). Matvienko may also win the backing of the Communists, who say they will consider supporting her (Russian agencies, March 6).

This pro-Matvienko coalition, however, does not look at all stable. One of the main potential bones of contention is the long-standing conflict between the SPS’s federal organization and its St. Petersburg chapter. Several SPS leaders in St. Petersburg say they have no intention of supporting Matvienko. In addition, the Petersburg right is threatening to run their own candidate (Segodnya, March 10). Nor can Matvienko count on support from the St. Petersburg branch of OVR, because it is still controlled by incumbent Governor Yakovlev. Most observers think that it is only a matter of time before Yakovlev announces his intention to run. He needs time to work out a new election strategy because his old one has been undermined by two recent events. First was the decision by Oksana Dimitrieva, former Russian labor minister, not to participate in the election. According to local experts, Yakovlev’s team planned to use her to draw away some support for Matvienko from women voters. Second was the endorsement of Matvienko by OVR’s Moscow leaders (National News Service, March 6).

But, even if Yakovlev is almost completely isolated politically, he remains a formidable candidate and, according to the public opinion polls, is far more popular than Matvienko. His support currently stands at 14 percent, while Matvienko’s is only 3 (Moskovskie novosti, March 7). First, Petersburgers view Matvienko not as a former resident of their city, but as a “representative of Moscow,” a significant negative factor for a contestant in St. Petersburg elections. Second, in St. Petersburg, as in Russia overall, few voters are inclined to cast their ballots for a woman seeking high office.

All this has boosted the chances of yet another possible candidate–Yuri Boldyrev. As a local politician who made his name fighting corruption in Moscow, he enjoys great authority in St. Petersburg and could win support from a significant part of the right-of-center electorate. This could prove decisive, given the significant role that the right-of-center electorate plays in St. Petersburg, unlike in other regions. Were the local SPS to back Boldyrev, he might be a winner. His chances, however, are lessened by the fact that neither the federal SPS organization nor Yabloko will support him. Yabloko, which is very strong in St. Petersburg, is unlikely to do so because, though Boldyrev was one of its founders, he left the party on unfriendly terms some years ago after an acrimonious falling out with its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky.

Yabloko, however, has been largely sidelined in this election. In deciding not to run, Stepashin ignored the party’s interests, even though he is one of its leaders, and left it without a credible substitute. There have been rumors that it may put forward Igor Artemev, head of the party’s St. Petersburg branch (Moskovskie novosti, March 7). The branch has also floated the idea of an “anti-Yakovlev coalition,” which would require Matvienko and Unity, along with Yabloko, to support any candidate who made it into a second round against Yakovlev (Segodnya, March 10). There have also been reports that Matvienko has offered Artemev the post of deputy-governor, and that Artemev was interested in the offer. All these rumors underline the fact that the election remains very much open and it is too early to predict who will emerge victorious.