Washington, 21 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Despite a no-holds-barred effort, presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District Valentina Matvienko failed to win the 21 September St. Petersburg gubernatorial elections in the first round.
Matvienko was declared the favorite in the race by the federal media long before she even declared she would run, but Deputy St. Petersburg Governor Anna Markova -- whose campaign coffers had at their peak only a small fraction of the money Matvienko had available -- managed to attract almost 16 percent of the votes, compared with 48.6 percent for Matvienko.
The result, just shy of the 50 percent needed for a first-round victory, would seem to indicate that Matvienko and Markova will go head to head in a second round on 5 October. Former State Duma Deputy Sergei Belyaev came in a surprising third with just over 8 percent of the vote.
Matvienko's near victory was further tarnished by the low voter turnout. Just 29 percent of the eligible electorate came to the polls, and nearly 11 percent of those who voted cast their ballots "against all" of the candidates, Interfax reported. The media were quick to interpret this result as a protest against what was widely seen as an alternative-less election, with Matvienko being foisted upon the city by President Vladimir Putin's Kremlin.
Just days before the ballot, images of Matvienko were difficult -- if not impossible -- to avoid. Judging by street posters alone, her main competition appeared to be not Markova, but U.S. pop singer Mariah Carey, who is advertising a concert to be held the first week of October. All that remained of Markova were the shreds of posters that had been ripped down dangling from building vents and distinguishable only by her trademark yellow hair. Belyaev, who started the race with little hope of succeeding, promoted himself as the male alternative: his campaign slogan -- "Being governor is a man's job." But Matvienko made it clear from the beginning that she was not to be left fluttering alone without a strong man at her side. Unlike those of Carey and Markova, Matvienko's posters prominently feature a strong male escort -- President Putin. Strolling side by side with broad smiles, they promised St. Petersburg voters, "Together we can do anything."
And, judging by the conduct of her campaign, Matvienko seemed willing to try anything. Together, the office of the presidential envoy, the presidential administration, and the pro-presidential party Unified Russia left little to chance in their battle to get Matvienko elected. They marshaled an impressive array of so-called "administrative resources" on behalf of Matvienko. They seized almost total control over the local mass media. They mobilized loyal support among local police, local courts, and the city election commission, judging by the number of favorable actions and decisions for Matvienko. They also amassed an impressive campaign fund, several times more than that of the next-leading candidate, even by official accounting.
Before Matvienko was appointed envoy in March, the St. Petersburg press was divided into at least three camps -- one supporting then-Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, a second supporting then-presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, Viktor Cherkesov, and a smaller group that was independent. By June, the pro-Yakovlev Peterburg television station had been purged, as the station's general director, Irina Terkina, resigned after closed-door talks with Media Minister Mikhail Lesin and the hosts of two political programs, Daniil Kotsubinskii and Petr Godlevskii, were dismissed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 June 2003). Kotsubinskii told RFE/RL that the station offered to let him host a nonpolitical program, while his colleagues, Terkina and Godlevskii, were reportedly offered large sums of money or positions in city government.
Around the same time, Tatyana Moskvina and Dmitrii Tsilikin, who hosted a program on a local RTR affiliate, were informed the program was being cancelled. Both Moskvina and Tsilikin attributed the decision to the appearance in a local weekly of an article by Moskvina criticizing Matvienko. After these changes, a group of local intellectuals published a letter in July in "Moskovskii komsomolets v Pitere," No. 28, noting that "St. Petersburg television has been [tamed] to serve one goal: to inculcate the idea that there are no other worthy candidates besides Valentina Matvienko, and to carry out a hasty, practically alternative-less election/farce."
One result of this campaign in the media was that the number of mentions of Matvienko increased significantly and, according to a report commissioned by a rival candidate, up to 85 percent of them were positive.
Matvienko's team also won victories in the courts. In April, a new city prosecutor -- Nikolai Vinnichenko, who happened to be a former deputy presidential envoy, was appointed, and one of his first actions was to seek the replacement of the pro-Yakovlev chairman of the city election commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 May 2003). During the campaign, the local election commission rejected a series of complaints filed against Matvienko by her competitors.
The most significant of these was over a controversial 2 September national-television appearance by Matvienko with Putin, during which Putin expressed his support for Matvienko's candidacy. Attorneys for Markova noted in their complaint that Putin "appeared to be informed that video cameras were present in his office, but he did not take any measures so that his 'working meeting' with gubernatorial candidate Matvienko would not become a subject for broadcasts by the mass media." Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov deemed the matter one for the jurisdiction of the city's election commission. On 18 September, St. Petersburg Election Commission Secretary Marina Sakharnova noted: "According to Article 48.1 [of the federal election law], anybody can campaign. He is the president, and it is hard to determine when he is a private person and when he is not," "The St. Petersburg Times" reported the next day. In an open letter to Putin, Markova complained, "If the guarantor of the constitution breaks the law, how should other branches of the administration behave?"
"Black public relations," or dirty tricks, are among the few tools that opposition candidates can use to counter the use of administrative resources. However, in St. Petersburg, Matvienko's opposition did not appear to be the only ones resorting to such tactics. On 19 September, some city residents found in their mailboxes a leaflet that appeared to come from Markova and Belyaev declaring that they had withdrawn from the race and advising their supporters not to go to polls. The leaflet was an obvious forgery because it did not contain information about where it was printed. It was impossible to pinpoint where it came from, but local political observers assumed that Matvienko's campaign was responsible, since only their candidate stood to gain if supporters of Markova and Belyaev stayed home. However, as with most successful dirty tricks, it will likely be impossible to determine with any finality who was the leaflet's author.
One explanation for why Matvienko didn't manage to win outright in the first round despite the seemingly overwhelming array of resources aligned for her was because there were divisions within her team. Political observer and director of the St. Petersburg-based Center for the Study and Prognosis of Social Processes, Leonid Keselman, told RFE/RL that there were five separate teams working to elect Matvienko: One was composed of members of the St. Petersburg "siloviki" now based in Moscow; a second comprised people associated with the so-called Yeltsin-era "family;" a third included members of federal headquarters of Unified Russia; a fourth was made up of members of the local branch of Unified Russia; and a fifth included local "siloviki." Matvienko, according Keselman, was at the center of the struggle, but was powerless to stop the infighting.
According to polls conducted by Keselman's center, Matvienko's rating rose from 40.2 percent in July to 44.1 percent on 16 September among those voters most likely to vote in the election, while Belyaev's rating jumped more than three times in the same period. Markova, with less money and exposure than either Belyaev or Matvienko, rose at a slower pace from 7.7 percent to 9.3 percent.