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Matviyenko: the governor nobody wanted

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The ever-shifting political landscape in Russia has been gripped by the latest turn of events. Valentina Matviyenko, Governor of St Petersburg since 2003, is apparently moving to a high-profile Moscow job (albeit one with no power). The Russian press has two possible explanations for this, but neither is the right one, says Dmitri Travin

Dmitri Travin
5 July 2011

There is a reshuffle taking place within the Russian leadership and at first glance it seems quite odd. In the spring the third most important political post in Russia – Chairman of the Federation Council – unexpectedly fell vacant.  It had been occupied for the whole of the Putin era by Sergei Mironov, but he suddenly fell out of favour with his patron and was retired.  

This week the question of his replacement was effectively settled. It is to be the Governor of St Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko.  Formally she has still to go through the election process (first she has to get into the Federation Council, then assure herself of majority support there), but no one doubts that she will become the most important leader after the “tandem” of Medvedev and Putin.  On Tuesday she had an audience with Dmitry Medvedev, so if everything's agreed with the President of Russia, she will sail through the elections.  Such is the nature of democracy in Russia today.

It's pretty clear why Mironov was retired.  He was both Chairman of the Federation Council and head of the Just Russia party, which positioned itself as a party of opposition.  A contradictory opposition, because Just Russia's opponent was the main pro-Kremlin parliamentary party, United Russia, but not Putin, the real ruler of the country.  Independent experts maintained with justification that Just Russia was not a real opposition party, but simply a Kremlin project to take left-wing votes away from the Communists.  Just Russia's position on questions of cardinal importance for Putin was for  a long time just as loyal as United Russia's.

 

"Governors wield more influence than their Western analogues ... they have the final word as to which business should be allowed (or not) to set up in their region. ... They can exert pressure on judges ... And finally, they can manipulate the regional mass media... Matviyenko would quite possibly have liked to carry on as governor, instead of accepting an honorary promotion.

Sensing that Just Russia's opposition was a fiction, voters offered it only half-hearted support, so Mironov had to ratchet up the opposition. As soon as he had made it radical enough to satisfy Putin, he was despatched into retirement.  This shows the true nature of the “independent” parties actually created by the Kremlin.  It is very likely that the Right Cause party, with its newly elected leader Mikhail Prokhorov (one of the richest men in Russia), will turn out to be no more independent than Just Russia, as I wrote in my recent article

But why should it be Matviyenko who takes over from Mironov at the Federation Council?  There are two conflicting answers to this question circulating in the Russian press and both, to my mind, are false.

The official version is that Matviyenko is a successful manager and is being rewarded for her services.  Every inhabitant of St Petersburg has reasons to doubt this. Over the last two winters — two exceptionally snowy ones — the clearing away of the snow in the city has been appallingly inefficient.  It wasn't only big lumps of snow that fell on people's heads from roofs which had not been cleared: icicles caused serious injuries and even killed some people. There's nothing to reward Matviyenko for.

Perhaps she is being removed from her post as a punishment?  One school of thought says she has run St Petersburg so badly and is so unpopular that she could drag United Russia down at the general election in December 2011.  Easier to shunt her into an honorary post than to deal with the results of the people's displeasure.

These assumptions are not totally without foundation.  It is definitely better to be governor of Russia's second city than head of the upper chamber of parliament.  Putin's authoritarian system of government has rendered the Chairman of the Federation Council completely powerless.  He will be accorded honour and respect, but have no part in deciding questions of any significance at all.  Members of the Russian parliament are not able to reject or make any meaningful changes to decisions already taken by the Kremlin or the government.

A close ally of Vladimir Putin, Valentina Matviyenko's demise will be mourned by few within St Petersburg (though the reasons for her departure are anything but democratic). Demotix/rfefl. All rights reserved

Governors, on the other hand, wield more influence than their Western analogues.  Effectively Russian governors have the final word as to which business should be allowed (or not) to set up in their region.  They can strengthen the monopoly of the biggest companies or, on the contrary, ensure that they have competition.  It is within their power to use administrative means or funds from their budget in support of some commercial organisations, while squeezing others out of the market.  They can exert pressure on judges, which will have the same result i.e. some companies will become stronger and others weaker.  And finally, they can manipulate the regional mass media and, in so doing, control the population.

So Matviyenko would quite possibly have liked to carry on as governor, instead of accepting an honorary promotion.  But she was not offered the choice.

This is only one side of the question.  The other side is that the Kremlin, as everyone knows, has many ways of ensuring a good result for United Russia at the election.  These include massive TV propaganda, electoral commissions at the beck and call of the leadership, and the considerable funds which the party has at its disposal.  There would be no point in removing Matviyenko from her post for the sake of the election, because United Russia will win anyway – with her help, or without it.

To my mind, the idea of moving Matviyenko upwards has nothing to do with either services rendered or a desire to punish her for her lack of popularity.  The distribution of governors throughout the big cities which attract huge funding streams is mostly fought over and settled by the various groups inside the Kremlin who seek to control these streams.   

The most likely explanation is that the appearance on the scene of a new Petersburg governor will mean some companies will get stronger and others weaker, so certain people will stand to gain (or lose) millions, if not billions, of dollars. Influential Kremlin bosses are probably already lobbying for one of their people to be appointed in Matviyenko's place as governor of St Petersburg so that the groups under their control earn money, rather than losing it. In Russian politics today people with influence are much more concerned by these commercial issues, than by winning elections, which are anyway controlled by the Kremlin.

So Matviyenko staying on as governor of St Petersburg is in no one's interest.  She has been in post for almost two complete terms since 2003 (governors are elected for 4 years) and there are no formal reasons for leaving her there.

She is, on the other hand, an ideal choice for the Federation Council post.  There are almost no women in the Russian government, even in nominal posts.  Neither Putin nor Medvedev like this situation, as it creates the impression in the West that there is no equality of the sexes in Russia.  So the two leaders decided to address the problem.  Three women have recently been appointed ministers – though not, it has to be said, in very important ministries (economic development, agriculture and health).  If the third most important post now goes to a woman, then Medvedev will be able to tell his G8 partners that the equality of the sexes is flourishing in Russia. In its imitation of democratic values, Matviyenko's “promotion” thus comes from the very same textbook that last month presented oligarch Prokhorov and the Right Cause as the bastion of Russia's liberal opposition. 

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