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Russia Report: April 12, 2000

12 April 2000, Volume 2, Number 14
In its issue number 14 dated 4 April, "Itogi" suggested that President-elect Vladimir Putin is resorting to an old formula for managing relations with regional heads: "Sovereignty in exchange for loyalty." According to the weekly, Primorskii Krai Governor Yevgenii Nazdratenko, Kursk Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi and Kaliningrad Governor Leonid Gorbenko all pledged their allegiance to Unity during State Duma elections and in that way demonstrated their obedience to the future president. And they continue to be allowed "to rule their regions in the same manner as before." The publication explains that loyal leaders will be given full financial and legal authority on their territory. It also claims, without reference to sourcing, that at a recent meeting with a number of governors, Putin responded positively to the recent proposal in the Federation Council that the law on forming legislative and executive bodies be amended so that regional leaders can seek more than two consecutive terms in office: "No one is trying to insist that the governors are playing with the rules of democracy" (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 5 April 2000). JAC

Following reports on Ekho Moskvy that President-elect Putin plans to ask the Federation Council to consider the dismissal of Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov at its next session, "Segodnya" speculated on 8 April that the Putin administration is in a hurry to resolve the Skuratov question because his continued presence in that position is a "symbol of governors' willfulness." Two days later, Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak said that he believes that the Federation Council will support any candidate for the post of prosecutor general that President-elect Putin may propose, Interfax reported. He added that Putin has significantly more authority in society than Boris Yeltsin had in the last years of his rule, when the Federation Council three times rejected requests to dismiss Skuratov. JAC

A group of deputies from 12 regions in Siberia have formed a deputies' association called Siberian Accord--after the interregional association of the same name, "Vremya MN" reported on 5 April. According to the agency, the head of the group is Aleksandr Fomin (Union of Rightist Forces). JAC

Meanwhile, First Deputy Director of Siberian Accord Anatolii Zatsepin reported that an all-Siberian television company could start broadcasting by the end of 2000 using a satellite to be launched from Baikonur in March, "Novosibirskie novosti" reported on 10 March. According to Zatsepin, it is necessary for all 19 Siberian territories to contribute 350 million rubles ($10.6 million) for installing equipment in Novosibirsk and Krasnoyarsk, where special communication ports for receiving information from the satellites will be established. JAC

The Constitutional Committee of the Legislative Assembly's House of Representatives has formed a working group charged with drawing up a new constitution for the republic, "Rossiya.Regiony" reported on 7 April. At the same time, it voted by an overwhelming majority to recommend that the house refrain from backing a legislative proposal by Prime Minister Sergei Katanandov for the formation of a constitutional commission composed of 24 members, half of whom would be named by the Legislative Assembly and the other half by the prime minister. The legal department of the Legislative Assembly had argued that existing legislation does not provide for the setting up of a body that would de facto transfer some powers of the Legislative Assembly in this sphere. In a 26 March referendum, almost 70 percent of voters in Karelia came out in favor of a unicameral legislature for the republic and renaming the region's top official "head of the republic" (glava respubliki). JC

The chairman of the oblast Duma, along with 12 other lawmakers, have sent a letter to President-elect Vladimir Putin asking him to "defend their honor and dignity" from the "transgressions" of Governor Aleksandr Rutskoi, "Izvestiya" reported on 8 April. Among the many transgressions listed in the letter are "flourishing corruption," repeated attempts to abolish local government, and violations of the constitution and oblast legislation. The stand-off with the administration began several years ago, according to the newspaper; with the decision of the oblast Duma chairman to appeal to Putin, it now involves most of the local political elite. Following a series of criminal proceedings launched by the oblast prosecutor-general, some members of Rutskoi's administration, including two of his deputies, are now in prison, while most of his relatives have fled the region. The appeal to rein in the Kursk governor comes on the heels of a request from several local leaders in Marii El that Putin remove the republic's president. Gubernatorial elections are due in Kursk later this year. JC

Volzhsk Mayor Nikolai Svistunov attempted in vain at the end of last month to have President Vyacheslav Kislitsyn removed from office, "Rossiya.Regiony" reported on 3 April. A majority of deputies in the republican State Assembly voted down his proposal on impeaching the president. According to unidentified sources cited by the on-line news agency, the outcome of the vote was a foregone conclusion since the presidential administration had spent several days "working on" lawmakers to cast their ballots in its favor. Svistunov was one of local leaders who recently sent a letter to the Kremlin requesting that Kislitsyn be deposed and the republic put under the direct control of Moscow (see "RFE/RL Russian Federation Report," 29 March 2000). Presidential elections are due in Marii El in December. JC

Samara Governor Konstantin Titov's resignation on 4 April may result in a rescheduling of various local elections throughout the oblast, ITAR-TASS reported on 5 April. According to the agency, legislators in Togliatti's legislature would like to combine their elections, which were scheduled to place in December 2000, with the newly rescheduled gubernatorial elections on 2 July. A number of other local elected officials who also face re-election in December reportedly also want to reschedule those ballots. Interfax reported on 10 April that an unidentified source in Titov's circle said that the governor is "inclined to" honor the request of the local AvtoVAZ workers collective that he run again for governor. Former State Duma deputy General Albert Makashov announced on 6 April that he will seek the governor's office. Makashov recently lost his bid to enter the State Duma in repeat elections held in Sverdlovsk Oblast. He is not expected to win in Samara, either. JAC

President-elect Putin has directed the Office of Russian Prosecutor-General to check the observance by the regional administration and law enforcement agencies of federal laws on organized crime, Russian agencies reported on 10 April. According to ITAR-TASS, the Prosecutor-General's Office has instituted criminal proceedings on some 200 cases of tax dodging, embezzlement and other economic offenses as a result of an investigation by the Kremlin's Control Department, a unit that Putin himself used to head. Putin's order suggested that a "coordinated approach to fighting organized crime was needed in the oblast as well as the improved selection of personnel at law enforcement and tax agencies." JAC

Legislative Assembly deputy Sergei Shevchenko was arrested last week on suspicion of extortion related to his activities in the city's entertainment business, "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 11 April. Along with his brother, Vyacheslav, Shevchenko is alleged to have extorted $50,000 from a magazine that had blown the whistle on an attempt by a company belonging to the two brothers to lure techno-punk fans to a concert under deceptive billing. Some local deputies, however, believe that Vladimir Yakovlev might be behind the arrest of Shevchenko, who has recently been embroiled in a disagreement with the incumbent governor over what Shevchenko alleges are "suspicious activities" in the fulfillment of a City Hall contract for a construction project at a prime location in the city. According to a fellow lawmaker, Shevchenko last week sent a "tough-worded inquiry" to Yakovlev about those activities. Shevchenko is the second St. Petersburg deputy, after Yurii Shutov, to be arrested since the new parliament was elected in late 1998. Shutov has been in custody since February 1999 on suspicion of arranging several high-profile contract killings in the city. JC

The Volgograd City Council remains without a chairman after a dispute between deputies over the election of their new leader resulted in legal proceedings. The members of the municipal parliament have been at loggerheads since last fall, when new elections to that body were held, and have thereby stalled the work of the council, "Izvestiya" reported on 5 April. In February, Igor Ivanov resigned as city council chairman to protest that state of affairs and refused to revoke his decision when requested to do so by council members. As a result, new elections for the chairmanship took place on 24 March, but almost half of the deputies left the chamber after the first round of voting, citing technical irregularities. They then declared the second round of voting illegal because, they argue, the council's regulations state that at least two-thirds of deputies must be present for any decisions to be considered lawful. The issue is now being fought out in a district court, after the city prosecutor-general declared the election invalid, according to "Izvestiya." JC

The oblast prosecutor-general has gone to court over Governor Aleksandr Sysoev's resolution on licensing procedures for bakers, "Vremya MN" reported on 4 April. The local guild of bakers and confectioners sees that resolution, which significantly tightens the regulations for granting licenses, as a bid to squeeze out small and medium-sized enterprises from the bread market. According to the guild, more than a third of all such enterprises in the oblast are unable to meet the requirements and do not have the means to acquire a license. Moreover, it continues, the oblast and city authorities support only the large bakeries, providing them with cheap grain from the oblast reserves and freeing them from paying local taxes. "Vremya MN" points out that last year, the federal government submitted a bill to the State Duma that would exclude bakeries and confectioneries from requiring a license. JC

REGIONAL INDEX: Monthly wages for various professions across Russia (in dollar equivalents).
Head accountant___________Moscow_____$1000-$1500


Marketing expert___________Moscow______$700

Electrolysis specialist

at aluminum factory_______Krasnoyarsk___$520-$560

Airplane construction


Bank employee______________Khabarovsk____$216

Sanitation worker____________Khabarovsk______$5


Agricultural worker__________Vologda_________$17

Cultural worker______________Ulyanovsk________$18

Source: "Komsomolskaya pravda" 1 April 2000.

END NOTE: Matvienko's Retreat
By Peter Rutland

Valentina Matvienko dramatically announced on 4 April that she was dropping out of the race for governor of St. Petersburg, which will be held on 14 May. She said that she was responding to a request from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to resume her duties as deputy prime minister for social affairs.

The announcement came as a surprise--not least to Matvienko's campaign team, who had just moved into gleaming new downtown offices and who had already collected 120,000 signatures in support of registering her candidacy. Over the past few weeks the Moscow establishment had been gearing up for a full-court press to promote Matvienko's bid for the governorship of the "northern capital." This was puzzling on two counts. First, it is pretty rare for a national government--in Russia or anywhere else--to become so deeply involved in the election of a regional official. Second, all the signs showed that Matvienko had no chance of being elected. Polls showed support for Matvienko stuck at around 10 percent, compared to 50 percent for incumbent Governor Vladimir Yakovlev.

It was at the funeral of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak on 24 February that Moscow's desire to remove Yakovlev surfaced in the public arena. Sobchak had been ousted by Yakovlev in 1996, amid accusations of corruption, and an emotional Putin hinted that it was the pressure of these political struggles that had brought about Sobchak's premature death. Former Premier Sergei Stepashin announced at the funeral that it was time for Leningraders (such as himself) to return to their native city. But it later became clear that Matvienko, not Stepashin, was Putin's choice. Although she had not yet formally announced her candidacy for the governor, she took a leave from her government duties and in effect began running for the office, with frequent appearances on national television.

It was hard to understand why the Kremlin was expending such time and energy on what seemed like a lost cause--at a time when they had other things on their mind (like securing Putin's own election, designing a reform program, and winning the Chechen war). Perhaps the idea was to prove to regional governors that no one is invulnerable. Perhaps it was to prove that with enough money anybody can get themselves elected, to anything, in today's Russia (a well-known boast of oligarch Boris Berezovsky). But the main reason seems to have been Putin's sense that he should honor a debt to his deceased friend, Sobchak. That is a noble goal, but inappropriate nonetheless. Loyalty to one's friends is a virtue, but it has its limits. It is not a sound principle upon which to pick a governor, or to run a country.

From the beginning, Matvienko faced an uphill struggle. First: it is always hard to dislodge an incumbent. (All seven governors in Russia who ran for re-election on 26 March were successful, for example.) Second, Yakovlev is fairly popular. A poll conducted by Leonid Keselman and Maria Matskevich from Petersburg's Institute of Sociology on 15-17 March found Yakovlev outpolling Matvienko in just about every category of voters--even Union of Right Forces supporters preferred him over Matvienko (by 40 percent to 23 percent). They also saw no evidence that Matvienko would close the gap if voting went to a second round, since supporters of other candidates would split evenly between the two leaders. Matvienko's strategy would have been to argue that the city is corrupt and poorly managed, while holding out the carrot of federal money and privileges. Outsiders indeed often complain that Petersburg is dirty and depressed: last month, failed presidential candidate Umar Dzambrailov said that "the city needs to be shampooed, for a year." However, most residents do not have such a negative view of their own city. The Keselman poll found that most residents believe that the condition of the city's roads has actually improved in recent years (by 55 percent to 19 percent), and that the city's economic situation is better than the rest of Russia.

Another problem for Matvienko was that she was perceived as an outsider. Despite her frequent references to Petersburg as her "rodnoi gorod" ("hometown" or "native town"), in reality she only moved there at age 18, to train as a pharmacist in one of the less prestigious institutes in the city. More to the point, over the past decade she has served in government positions in Moscow and abroad, and was seen as the Kremlin's favored candidate. Yakovlev could plausibly portray himself as the local boy fighting off outside interference.

In a city where local pride matters, the advertising campaign which began two weeks ago--billboards and TV spots announcing that "Our City is Tired"--could easily have backfired. Telling people that the city they love is a mess is a risky way to win votes. (It seems reasonable to assume that Matvienko backers were behind the campaign, since it is hard to imagine who else would have been interested in mounting such a costly exercise.) The fact that Matvienko is a woman also worked against her. Only one other woman has succeeded in being elected governor--in the remote Koryak region. European University professor Grigorii Golosov has shown, through analysis of regional legislative elections across the country, that Russian voters tend to penalize women candidates. Matvienko's image was not sufficiently distinctive to enable her to overcome this barrier, as have some women politicians. In contrast to an independent, modern figure such as Irina Khakamada (a State Duma deputy from St. Petersburg), Matvienko's political style was forged during her 17 years as a functionary in the Soviet-era Komsomol. She talks about politics in terms of "fulfilling tasks," as does Putin--but Putin is a man, and is convincing as a Soviet-style boss.

In order to dent Yakovlev's popularity, Matvienko would have had to play the Putin card, hoping that a strong presidential endorsement would carry her to victory. However, judging by Putin's cautious behavior (his willingness to meet with Yakovlev on the day of Sobchak's funeral, for example), there were limits to the president's desire to expend his political capital on the Matvienko candidacy--especially given the good chance that Matvienko would lose even with a Putin endorsement. Promising a cornucopia of future largesse from Moscow may have been too hypothetical for the average voter. A more viable strategy would have been to unleash a tide of corruption allegations (kompromat) against her adversary. But this too could have backfired: if, for instance, the evidence was not convincing, or if Yakovlev could portray himself as the persecuted underdog. One thing Matvienko could not do is campaign on her record. As deputy premier responsible for social affairs, she would not want to get involved in arguments about why the government is refusing to implement the law on indexation of pensions, or why child welfare payments are up to a year in arrears.

That left only one major factor in her favor: the willingness of the national media to massage her image. Over the past few weeks Matvienko had more air time on national TV than pop idol Zemfira. The low point came on 31 March, when viewers of NTV were subjected to an excruciatingly tedious half-hour documentary on a day in the life of the erstwhile minister. Valentina Ivanovna was shown driving around St. Petersburg, shopping, reminiscing with friends.

However, if her image did not in fact strike a positive chord with Petersburg voters, all this exposure may actually have harmed rather than helped her ratings. The other factor to bear in mind is that local TV is loyal to Yakovlev, and has been assiduously polishing his image, without appearing too obvious and fawning about it. In a battle between national and local media the advantage lies with the latter. There is a limit to the amount of minutes national TV could devote to Matvienko, while viewers get several hours of city news each day from local stations.

A nasty and protracted struggle for the governor's chair would have done little to solve the problems facing St. Petersburg, and would have been unlikely to boost the authority of Putin. Hence Putin's decision to pull Matvienko from the race was a wise one, and shows that Putin has some capacity to read the writing on the wall and, in effect, admit that he had made a mistake.

The Matvienko affair was an unfortunate way for Putin to start his presidency. The manner in which her candidacy was promoted and then unceremoniously dumped reeked of the "corridor politics" and reliance on media manipulation which characterized the Yeltsin presidency. The nomination and then abrupt departure of Matvienko left the democratic parties without an agreed candidate, and has virtually assured a first-round victory for Yakovlev. Moreover, the ease with which governor Yakovlev saw off the challenge from Moscow implies that Putin will have a hard time reining in the all-powerful regional governors, and that could prove a major obstacle to his reform agenda.

The author, a professor from Wesleyan University in the U.S., is teaching political science as a Fulbright Fellow at the European University in St. Petersburg.