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Analysis: One Year At The Helm In Petersburg

On 5 October 2003, Valentina Matvienko, with the heavy support of President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin machine, won a second-round victory with 63 percent of the vote to become governor of St. Petersburg. This week, she marked her first anniversary in power fittingly -- by meeting in the Kremlin with Putin and reporting on her achievements. According to ITAR-TASS on 21 October, Matvienko reported that despite her efforts, progress on the construction of the city's ring road is stalled. "If you continue to work as energetically," Putin reportedly told her, "you will certainly complete the road."

Despite her close ties and unquestioning loyalty to the Kremlin, Matvienko is one of Russia's most popular regional leaders, normally polling about 70 percent support. In a long interview with "Itogi," No. 43, this month, Matvienko explained that she feels "a double responsibility" as governor: "before the people who supported me during the election and before the president, whom I represent in the region."

In that interview, Matvienko demonstrated her unwavering support of the president and staunchly defended his 13 September proposal to replace the direct election of regional governors with a system under which local legislatures approve candidates nominated by the president. Although Putin said the proposal was a response to the Beslan school hostage taking, Matvienko said it actually came at the request of regional leaders themselves who are fed up with the election process. She condemned Russian elections and the political consultants who thrive off them, saying that they use any methods "often including some that are far from legal." She argued that the elections do not allow the people to express their views, but are always won by "the candidate who has the most money, who has the most powerful sponsors." She concluded that victorious candidates spend their terms meeting the obligations they made to their sponsors.
Matvienko condemned Russian elections and the political consultants who thrive off them, saying that they use any methods "often including some that are far from legal."

Matvienko sees Putin's proposal as an antidote to Russia's poisoned election system and lauds Putin for being willing to take on the responsibility for selecting regional leaders. Moreover, she argued that the new system will do more to reflect public opinion than direct elections do. "I do not doubt that the nomination of candidates will be preceded by the most serious preparatory work, including monitoring, public-opinion studies, and meetings with local elites and deputies," Matvienko said. "No one will be nominated against the will of the people. That possibility has been excluded. At least in Petersburg. This isn't the kind of city where you can install a person who has been knitted together from above."

Matvienko provoked considerable controversy during this interview with her comments about the Russian political system generally. Asked whether Russia should become a parliamentary republic without a president, she responded: "No, for us that will never do! We are not ready for an experiment like that. The mentality of the Russian person demands a lord, a tsar, a president."

Local human rights advocates in St. Petersburg on 25 October issued a sharply worded call for Matvienko's resignation over this comment, which they denounced as "racist." "The scandalous statement by Valentina Matvienko is another demonstration of the real attitude of the country's leadership toward the people," a statement by For Human Rights read. "And the real sense of the current reforms of state power."

"The representatives of the ruling class do not even consider it necessary to hide their real attitudes toward constitutional democracy or to the majority of their fellow countrymen," the statement said. The activists called on citizens to demand the resignation of "those who speak out against guaranteed constitutional liberties" and, by doing so, to prove to Matvienko that "we are not serfs, not the property of either petty or great tyrants."

Valentina Matvienko: Resume

Born: 7 April 1949

1972: Graduated from the Leningrad Chemical-Pharmacological Institute.

1985: Graduated from the Academy of Social Sciences of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

1989-91: Chairwoman of the Supreme Soviet's Committee on Women, Families, and Children.

1989-92: People's deputy.

1991-94: Soviet and Russian ambassador to Malta.

1995-97: Director of the Foreign Ministry's department for relations with federation subjects, the legislature, and public organizations.

1997-98: Russian ambassador to Greece.

1999-2003: Deputy prime minister.

March 2003-October 2003: Presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District.


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