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Russia: New St. Petersburg Governor Reviving Plans To Establish 'Second Capital'

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One of the more sensational proposals made by St. Petersburg's new governor, Valentina Matvienko, following her victory last weekend, is to move one of the "branches of power" -- most likely the judiciary -- from Moscow to Russia's former imperial capital. Rumors about restoring the political importance of Russia's second city have circulated since President Vladimir Putin, himself a loyal Petersburg native, was elected president. Now, with St. Petersburg's 300th anniversary celebrations and gubernatorial elections out of the way, the plan appears to be gaining momentum -- and not to everyone's satisfaction.

Moscow, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- St. Petersburg is often referred to as Russia's second city. Is it about to become its second capital as well?

Slow-burning rumors that Moscow is set to relocate a part of its judiciary to Russia's former imperial capital have heated up with last weekend's election of Kremlin favorite Valentina Matvienko as St. Petersburg's new governor. Matvienko says she will push for the idea. But the project also has its opponents -- who see it as just another manifestation of Moscow's high-handed ways.

Russian newspaper reports have speculated that Russia's Supreme Court and Higher Arbitration Court have been earmarked for the transfer north. Indeed, if any of the three branches of power were to move, the judiciary would be the only logical choice, says Vladimir Ryzhkov, a Duma deputy and expert on the history of statehood and federalism. "Of the three branches of power -- executive, legislative, and judicial -- only one can theoretically be moved to another city, the judiciary. Because on a day-to-day basis, its work is not linked with the parliament, the government or the president."

So far, the judges whose work would be affected by such a move have been cautious in their comments. Venyamin Yakovlev, the head of the Higher Arbitration Court, told journalists yesterday the issue was "probably" under consideration, but that no official decisions had been made.

But the Higher Arbitration Court's chief of staff, Vladimir Bobrynev, told a St. Petersburg newspaper ("Delovoi Peterburg") that Federation Council (upper house) head Sergei Mironov warned him earlier this year that up to 200 civil servants in Russia's higher-ranking courts might move.

Such a move would not come as a surprise. President Vladimir Putin, a St. Petersburg native who brought a wave of northern political talent to Moscow following his election, voiced support for the idea as early as last year.

Many observers see the move as a gift from Putin to his hometown. Vladimir Ryzhkov explains why.

"It's clear that for St. Petersburg it would be lucrative -- the new administrations would bring new office space, hotels would fill up, apartments would be bought up by the state. It would be lucrative and prestigious for St. Petersburg. But for the country, it would mean a lot of extra expense."

St. Petersburg has already assumed the unofficial title of Russia's diplomatic capital, after Putin hosted a number of foreign dignitaries and a European Union summit amid the city's 300th-anniversary celebrations last May. The city is also now home to a presidential residence, a palace located on the Gulf of Finland.

The trend has prompted some commentators to debate the merits of decentralization. Most federative countries, like the United States, have all their institutions in one place. In his plan to transfer the courts to St. Petersburg, Putin appears to be following the example of Germany, which bases its Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe.

Critics of the idea point first to the expense. The cost of such a move, Ryzhkov says, would be staggering. "In Moscow, [the courts] have an important foundation of material support -- modern, renovated buildings, their own car park. Judges have [state-financed apartments, and also country houses. The move in itself will mean many billions of rubles in the federal budget going to prepare and renovate buildings [in St. Petersburg] to move the judges. Probably it would run up to billions of rubles."

In the end, it will be up to parliament to decide whether the courts will be transferred to St. Petersburg. But if statements by Putin are anything to go by, there are even grander plans ahead -- moving more federal institutions to even more Russian cities. Putin this spring told the "Izvestiya" daily newspaper that "distributing [state] functions throughout the country would be better [because] the concentration of rascals that surround the authorities would decrease."

But while polls cite a vast majority of Russians as saying they would like to see a federal institution move to their town or region, most St. Petersburg residents say they are against becoming a second capital. Traditionally, second-city residents avoid the limelight, saying a slower pace, far from the bustle of Moscow, is better suited to Petersburg's heritage of intellectual refinement.

But Petersburgers are also put out by the proposed sites the two courts would occupy -- the state archives and the Institute for Plant Industry -- both located on the city's central St. Isaac's Square. Late last year, both institutions were informed their buildings had been handed over to the presidential administration. The decision raised a wave of protest, with local deputies, employees, and human-rights activists going to court to fight for the right to keep the city's heritage intact.

Aleksei Kovalyov, a St. Petersburg lawmaker, says he hopes the archives' case will be heard by Russia's highest court. "Now the issue is in the hands of Russia's Supreme Court. I think they'll consider it. The irony of it all is that it's exactly [that] court that [may] be moved into the archives' building."

A second decision is pending on the fate of the Institute of Plant Industry. Lyubov Sazonova, the institute's deputy director, describes the damage such a move would do the organization's vast collection of plant life. "We have an enormous collection," she says. "We have about one million specimens of seeds, an enormous herbarium -- 320,000 [specimens] -- an enormous library, with over one and a half million volumes. Our buildings are a kind of natural thermostat, where seeds can be stored at little extra cost for quite a long time.

Irina Fligel of the Memorial human rights group says the plan could be devastating for St. Petersburg. "They don't even have a building ready for the archives and the plants," she says. "They will go into storage somewhere, and who knows what will become of all that. In the end, they are literally destroying our roots for a bunch of civil servants."

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