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Analysis: St Petersburg -'Dress Rehearsal for June 16?'

  • Brian Whitmore

St Petersburg, June 4 (RFE/RL) -- Vladimir Yakovlev, a virtually unknown quantity a few months ago, defeated his former boss, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak by fewer than 30,000 votes (2.1 percent), to become St Petersburg city governor.(the name of the St Petersburg chief executive has been changed from 'mayor' to 'governor.')

Yakovlev, who was formerly Sobchak's first Deputy Mayor for Public Works, spoke twice by telephone to Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday. According to Yakovlev's press secretary, Igor Siderov, Yeltsin congratulated Yakovlev, and called St Petersburg's election a "victory for democracy." Yeltsin was also reported to have said he plans a visit to St Petersburg (June 13), just before the presidential election.

Our St Petersburg correspondent reports Yakovlev, who had trailed in public opinion polls in the week prior to the election by as much as ten percentage points, apparently benefited from a low voter turnout: only 42 percent of eligible voters. He also managed to win most of the undecided vote, which was as high as 30 percent in some surveys.

Throughout the campaign, Sobchak had attempted to link his campaign to Yeltsin's re-election effort, calling the local vote a "dress rehearsal for the June 16 presidential elections."

After the results were announced, however, Yeltsin appeared to distance himself from this notion. Sergei Tsyplyaev, the presidential representative in St Petersburg, said at a Monday press conference that the two elections were not related.

"Under no circumstances is the St Petersburg election a microcosm of the presidential elections," Tsyplyaev said. "It is a local election that will have no influence on the national electorate, and is not connected to the outcome of the presidential elections."

At his own press conference yesterday, Yakovlev called his victory the beginning of a new era of democracy, where power will be transferred peacefully. Referring to his electoral coalition that included four other former candidates for governor - Vyacheslav Shcherbakov, Igor Artyemev, Alexander Belyayev and Alexander Belyakov - Yakovlev said that "if they (national politicians) would do what we did in St Petersburg the country would have civic accord."

Yakovlev announced that his administration will have close ties with Moscow city authorities. He said that he had received a congratulatory call from Moscow's popular and powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who will attend Yakovlev's swearing-in Wednesday. Yakovlev also added that he and Luzhkov plan many joint projects, including the restoration of highways between the two cities.

Alexander Yerofiyev, a researcher at the Gallup polling organization in St Petersburg said that he believes the event that pushed Yakovlev over the top was last Friday's televised debate, in which Sobchak looked worn, tired and out of touch.

"The debate brought Sobchak down to Yakovlev's level in the public eye," pollster Yerofiyev said.

Leonid Kesselman of the Institute of Sociology at the Russian Academy of Sciences agreed, saying "Sobchak worked against himself in the debate." Kesselman added that the low turnout had also cost Sobchak votes. Kesselman also said that Sobchak had hurt his image as a democrat recently, due to allegations of media pressure to reflect his campaign in a positive light, while censoring coverage of challengers.