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Russia: St. Petersburg Governor's Race Goes Largely Uncontested

  • Sophie Lambroschini

To no one's surprise, St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev was re-elected yesterday (Sunday) with more than two-thirds of the vote. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports the expected result in Russian President Vladimir Putin's native city may owe a great deal to Putin's removal of the main opposition candidate.

Moscow, 15 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- To many observers, Vladimir Yakovlev is most notable for his alleged ties with organized-crime groups. But St. Petersburg voters seemed to pay little attention to that yesterday in the gubernatorial election. Seventy percent of them chose Yakovlev, while his nearest rival -- Igor Artemyev of the liberal Yabloko party -- won only 15 percent.

The outcome was just about as little suspenseful as Russia's presidential election in March. Like Vladimir Putin then, Yakovlev sailed easily through the campaign with a popularity rating well over 60 percent, plenty of television exposure, and no serious opponents.

There would have been a serious opponent but for an about-face by the Kremlin, which withdrew the opposition candidate late in the race. That gave an unmistakable boost to the incumbent Yakovlev.

At the beginning of the campaign, several parties -- including the anti-Kremlin Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, and the pro-Putin Unity party -- seemed willing to unite behind a candidate endorsed by Putin. That was Valentina Matviyenko, a former social affairs minister. Putin had firmly expressed his dislike for Yakovlev.

But just a month ahead of the election, Putin called Matviyenko back into government, upsetting the race. Opposition supporters scrambled to find a new candidate and finally settled on Artemyev, Yakovlev's former deputy, just last week. Artemyev received the support of Unity only two days before the vote.

According to polls, if Artemyev had been able to wage an active campaign as long as Yakovlev did, the results would probably have favored Artemyev.

Jean-Robert Raviot, a Paris-based specialist in Russian affairs, says the St. Petersburg election can be seen as a reflection of the Kremlin's penchant for no-risk policies:

"That's one interpretation of Putin's psychological attitude -- that of a very cautious [politician] who is fearful of the democratic system and of elections, which he only tolerates when he is sure of winning. In its electoral sociology, St. Petersburg is actually a quite risk-laden city. It's a polarized, politicized city with [active] political parties and many [political] conflicts. So, entirely uncontrollable things could have happened if the situation had not been made so dull and slick as it turned out to be in this election."

Political analyst Raviot says the Kremlin may have supported Yakovlev in the St. Petersburg election because Yakovlev might have compromising material on Putin's early career in St. Petersburg. Therefore, he says, interference in this particular election reveals little about Putin's political intentions in general.

"It could mean that the situation in St. Petersburg is extremely specific. As [Putin] has shown, he is very much afraid of what is said and written about him. He checks it [because] nothing [is supposed to] leak out. In some way, Putin is protecting his past and did not want that certain elements of his past might be revealed during this election. And I think that a heated election in St. Petersburg would not have been beneficial to him and his past."

Putin may also have acted out of political pragmatism, by choosing to back a governor for his loyalty towards the Kremlin.

Raviot says that Putin's tacit support for Yakovlev sends a worrisome message about his regional policy. It shows the president is willing to support an autocrat who has allowed his hometown to be overrun by organized crime -- as long as that autocrat does not rebel. So far this year, St. Petersburg has seen at least a dozen contract killings of politicians and businessmen.