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Politicking Intensifies In St. Petersburg

By Brian Whitmore, Patrick Whalen

St. Petersburg, April 18 (RFE/RL) - The politicking is intensifying in St. Petersburg ahead of next month's local elections and Russia's presidential election in June.

On Monday, St. Petersburg Deputy Mayor Vladimir Yakovlev held a news conference to explain his campaign to unseat his boss, Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who is leading in public opinion polls.

Yakovlev and Sobchak, along with a few others, are campaigning to become "governor" of Russia's second city, as St. Petersburg's top job is to be known under a new election law.

Yakovlev, who has taken a leave of absence as deputy mayor for the campaign, said the main point of his election platform is to change St. Petersburg's orientation from a banking and tourism center to that of an industrial and transport center. Yakovlev said such a switch is needed if St. Petersburg is to attract the level of investment it needs to improve the lives of its citizens.

Other Yakovlev goals include unifying the city government and that of the Leningrad Oblast (region) to smooth the path of development.

Yakovlev also criticized on Monday St. Petersburg's electoral commission, saying it had tried to discredit him with charges that many signatures collected in support of his candidacy were falsified.

Yakovlev's criticism of the commission is the latest of several controversies to have shadowed St. Petersburg's gubernatorial election since it was announced.

First, the original date of the election, set for June 16 to coincide with the presidential poll, was changed at the insistence of Yeltsin's office. Yeltsin is hoping for substantial support from St. Petersburg voters and does not want to compete for attention from a local campaign during the final weeks of the presidential race.

In contrast to much of Russia, St. Petersburg gave a larger share of votes to reformist Grigory Yavlinsky's Yabloko bloc instead of to the communists in last December's parliamentary elections.

Then, after the date of the gubernatorial election was moved to May 19, the Yabloko bloc protested that the city's election law, passed by the legislative assembly March 20 but not signed until March 21, gives candidates 59 days - instead of the 60 stipulated by federal law - to campaign. The dispute has not yet been resolved.

Yuri Boldyrev, St. Petersburg's former representative to Russia's Federation Council, has accused the city's election law of unfairness because of a rule requiring candidates for governor to have held a St. Petersburg residency permit for one year prior to the election. Boldyrev has lived in Moscow for the past two years. But Boldyrev, considered a potentially strong candidate, has won a court decision to allow him to begin collecting signatures for his candidacy.

Campaigning for Russia's presidential elections has also heated up in St. Petersburg.

At the weekend, the St. Petersburg branch of the political party "Democratic Russia's Choice" convened a meeting during which it announced its support for Yeltsin's re-election. The branch also said it supported Sobchak for St. Petersburg governor, and that Sobchak had agreed to consult with party leaders should he win the election.

And on Monday, former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, a St. Petersburg native, held a news conference to announce that he also is backing Yeltsin. Chubais, who was forced to resign as Russia's economic policy chief after the strong showing by the Communists in the December elections, said he has joined Yeltsin's campaign staff because the president is more likely than Communist Party candidate Gennady Zyuganov to defend private property rights.

Chubais said it would be unwise for St, Petersburg voters to support Yabloko's Yavlinsky, because Yavlinsky is unlikely to make it to the second round of voting in the presidential vote. Chubais also said that a victory by Sobchak in the St. Petersburg governor's race would help the Yeltsin campaign.