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Matviyenko for President? I think not!

To the amusement of the Russian media, an article appeared in Britain’s The Independent on 6 September suggesting Valentina Matviyenko, Governor of St Petersburg, might be a candidate for Russian president in 2012. St Petersburger Dmitri Travin explains why this conjecture is so wrong.
Dmitri Travin
9 September 2010

Valentina the Great (not)

In principle nothing is impossible in Russian politics. President Putin is perfectly capable of nominating possibly not his Labrador Connie, but certainly Valentina Ivanovna Matviyenko as guardian of the presidential chair. There are, however, no serious indications that Mrs Matviyenko has any more chance of such a career leap than anyone else from the Russian political beau monde. This is demonstrated by how The Independent article appeared and some of its features.

“She was spotted and promoted by none other than the former President and current PM, Vladimir Putin. It was he who gave her the big break: the transfer to St Petersburg. So if he is in two minds about returning to the Kremlin himself and hesitant to back Medvedev for a second term, Ms Matviyenko's might be the new face of Russia.” – Mary Dejevski, Independent

Firstly, its appearance. Many people in St Petersburg remember that on 1 September 2006 a hare started up in the Russian media about the so-called project «Valentina the Great»: Mrs Matviyenko was slated for president in 2008. This didn't come to pass, as we know, and there are no serious reasons for believing that there was any such project in the real world of the Kremlin, rather than just in the imagination of various not very influential individuals.

Matviyenko 1

To the amusement of the Russian independent media, an article appeared in Britain’s The Independent on 6 September suggesting Valentina Matviyenko, Governor of St Petersburg, might be a candidate for Russian president in 2012. 

It is striking that this new information about Matviyenko has appeared exactly the same amount of time before the forthcoming presidential elections, as the rumour about «Valentina the Great» did before the 2006 elections. An unlikely coincidence, though I'm not about to start speculating who stands to benefit from it and why.

Norman Foster is not guilty

Now for the special features of the article, which appears to have been written by a less than competent journalist. The trivial factual mistakes, which are easy to check, lead me to think that the author of the article in The Independent is also wide of the mark on the larger questions, which are more difficult to check.

“Her detailed answers started with her support – or not – for the Norman Foster tower that the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, wants to build in her city. On balance, she seemed to support it, in the face of fierce ecological objections, but not in a dogmatic way that would prevent compromise with protest groups concerned about damage to St Petersburg's skyline.” – Mary Dejevski, Independent

The well known British architect Sir Norman Foster, for example, is named as the architect of the Gazprom Tower project, known as the Okhta Centre. Foster actually designed a scheme for the reconstruction of the landmark «New Holland» complex: this has absolutely nothing to do with the «gas-scraper», which is situated at the other end of the city. Foster didn't even submit a design to the competition. He was at one time on the panel of judges, though he subsequently resigned, which would have barred him from entering the competition.

The article contains serious mistakes in Matviyenko's biography. She was Deputy Prime Minister, not a Deputy Minister. The author of the article clearly doesn't understand Russian government hierarchy: Deputy Minister is such an insignificant post that it would be an impossible jumping-off point for becoming Governor of St Petersburg.

But, leaving the factual mistakes on one side, it is more interesting to consider the article's take on Valentina Matviyenko's strong points.

Margaret Thatcher has nothing to do with it

The author's starting point is that Valentina Ivanovna has changed her hairstyle, lost weight, and started running the city more spontaneously and, at the same time, more confidently. People in the West people are possibly used to the fact that the chief distinguishing feature of Russian management is enjoyment of good holidays, lots of sport, sunbathing, time spent travelling round their own country and the world (including on a motorbike, a fire-extinguishing plane and a Lada Kalina car). But none of this is sufficient to qualify as Putin's next heir. In our political world there are other not insignificant factors involved in climbing up the vertical of power.

According to the author of the article, one of Matviyenko's strong points as a possible presidential candidate is the similarity of her biography with Margaret Thatcher's. There is actually only one thing that these two delightful ladies have in common: they are both chemists by training. But Thatcher went to Oxford University, whereas Matviyenko studied at the Leningrad Institute of Chemistry and Pharmaceuticals (LICP).

In the twilight of the Soviet age I taught economics at this institute, so am not unfamiliar with it. It is, alas, very far from Oxford. LICP was one Leningrad's least prestigious and high-quality educational institutions with pretty mediocre students. In the USSR pharmaceuticals did not have the significance they have since acquired as big business.  So the students who went to the «Pill», as it was known in student slang, were the ones who had failed to get into the famous pre-revolutionary Technological Institute, which attracted the city's best professors.

Moreover, Thatcher in her time showed herself to be an independent politician, able to break the mould. Matviyenko has only been able to carve out a career because she has presented herself as the representative of the «boss», i.e. Putin. She has never shown any sign of original ideas as to how the country should be governed.

The Muscovites are NOT coming

The article correctly points out that Matviyenko is a Putin person. This is one of its few uncontroversial contentions. But there is not one person in the higher echelons of power in Russia who is NOT a Putin person (except one or two installed by Medvedev), so any of them would be just as entitled as Matviyenko to lay claim to the presidency.

Putin and Matiyenko

There are few regional governors in Russia as loyal to Vladimir Putin as Valentina Matviyenko.

What is most amusing is the author's enthusiasm for Matviyenko's success in St Petersburg. She maintains that families are moving there from Moscow for the culture and quality of life. The Russian translation on www.inosmi.ru actually says that they are moving because living standards are better there, but even The Independent article didn't come up with such idiocies (the standard of life in St Petersburg is much lower).

„ Vast investment by the central government improved the city's dilapidated fabric in time for the 300th anniversary in 2003. But the bigger changes have happened since, with huge new housing and commercial building projects and, most conspicuously, a transformation of the public mood. For the first time in my more than 30 years of visiting, people on the streets of St Petersburg seem confident and content with themselves.” – Mary Dejevski, Independent

There are actually many more Petersburgers moving to Moscow than there are rich Muscovites buying second flats in St Petersburg. It was a problem in Soviet times and Matviyenko has naturally not been able to reverse this very obvious trend. To have any hope of job fulfillment or a career in today's Russia, a move to the capital nearer to big money and the centre of decision-making sooner or later becomes essential. Under Matviyenko two or three head offices of big Russian companies have moved from Moscow to St Petersburg, but the realities of decision-making are in Moscow and senior management cadres are concentrated right there.

The article assesses life in St Petersburg by looking at the prosperity and confidence shining from the faces of its inhabitants. There are contented-looking faces in other places in Russia too, with the possible exception of depressing centres of population like Pikalevo. Hardly surprising, as the flow of petrodollars has raised living standards. But this has absolutely nothing to do with Matviyenko. There have been no serious attempts to develop business in St Petersburg and Putin, when contemplating the problem of 2012, knows full well that Valentina Ivanovna is a good lobbyist, who creates the right conditions for attracting government funding to St Petersburg. She is absolutely not an outstanding administrator, whose city offers better chances for business development than other cities.

Corruption rules!

Meanwhile The Independent article doesn't consider the real problems. According to its author, Matviyenko has even become one of the few people in power in Russia who is waging active war on corruption. The real methods of battling corruption in St Petersburg are sometimes quite tragicomical. Some time ago, for instance, posters appeared in the streets calling on citizens to «report» incidences of corruption to the relevant bodies.

“She also seemed to be one of very few Russian politicians to be actively tackling corruption.” – Mary Dejevski, Independent

This is perhaps an indirect sign that the government of St Petersburg has not been able to come up with any more effective measures. But my personal opinion is that this advertising campaign has no connection whatsoever with the problem of corruption. It's much more likely to be a way of using up funding allocated for this purpose. Before this «anti-corruption» campaign there were posters all over the city promoting tolerance.  This was connected with an officially-funded «tolerance programme».

Anxiety has recently been expressed in the media about the meteoric rise and successful career of Matviyenko's son in St Petersburg. I am no specialist on this subject and shall refrain from speculation, but it is interesting that the author of the article in The Independent appears not even to have heard this story, although it is the kind of information that a professional journalist should be gathering.

This is not an exhaustive list of the oddities of this article. But the conclusion reached by the independent newspaper The Independent independently of many important facts could be regarded as extremely dubious.

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