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Russia: The 'Good Tsar' Visits St. Petersburg

  • Brian Whitmore

St. Petersburg, 10 June 1997 (RFE/RL) - As President Boris Yeltsin mixed with St Petersburg citizens on Moskovsky Prospekt, a middle-aged woman complained of the poor state of repair in her apartment building. "Vladimir Anatolivich!" said Yeltsin, incredulously addressing city Governor Vladimir Yakovlev who was at the President's side. "Take this woman in your arms and take care of her apartment, or I will not let you ride in my car anymore."

That scene, broadcast to all of Russia on national television, was indicative of the tone of Yeltsin's one-day visit here Friday: the "good Tsar" taking care of his subjects.

"(Yeltsin's visit to St. Petersburg) was an exercise in public relations," said Andrei Piontkowsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "It was an attempt by Yeltsin to show the country that he has been resurrected."

Yeltsin's short visit here, which the President said would be the first of a series of trips to Russia's regions, had all of the trappings of an election-year campaign swing.

Nikolai Petrov, a specialist in regional politics at the Carnegie Center for International Peace tells RFE/RL that Yeltsin is traveling to the regions to drum up support, so he will be able to eventually endorse a successor, most likely First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov.

The consumate politician, Yeltsin doled out the goodies, both material and moral, to the city's eager recipients. He promised money for the Russian Museum over the next two years to augment its art collection and complete reconstruction work in time for its 100-year-anniversary celebration next March. At the Presidential Council for Culture, convened at the Russian Museum, Yeltsin declared St. Petersburg the "cultural capital of Russia." He also named June 6, the birthday of Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet and St. Petersburg cultural icon, a national holiday.

Yeltins also agreed to a request from city Governor Yakovlev to petition the United Nations to make the year 2003, "the Year of St. Petersburg" in honor of the 300th anniversary of the city's founding by Tsar Peter I.

The presence of First Deputy Prime Minister and St. Petersburg native Anatoly Chubais, who accompanied Yeltsin Friday, was also no accident.

"This is an attempt to show the new Chubais," said analyst Piontkowsky. "Chubais is trying to improve his image and present himself as a patron of high culture, not the head of voucher privatization," Piontkowsky said.

Yeltsin's visit to St Petersburg was also seen by many as the start of a campaign to reign-in Russia's regions.

Prior to his departure for St. Petersburg, Yeltsin issued a stern warning to Russia's governors in a Kremlin radio address. "I know there are a lot of bosses who got big powers and immediately opened up their big pockets," said Yeltsin. They think they are far away from Moscow and there will be no control over them. They are wrong." Continuing with this theme in St Petersburg, Yeltsin would say, "the bribe-takers hands are already shaking."