Behind closed doors, and as expected, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly today confirmed Georgy Poltavchenko as the city's fourth post-Soviet leader without much fanfare. (And as Gazeta.ru reports, without much emotion from the victor.)
After formally taking office, Poltavchenko then named the outgoing governor, Valentina Matviyenko, as the city government's representative to the Federation Council, where she will ultimately replace Sergei Mironov as speaker.
So now that all that is over with, the question remains: Why Poltavchenko?
In a commentary in "The Moscow Times," Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center -- one of the most astute observers of Russian regional politics out there -- took a stab at answering the question:
If United Russia were suffering from low ratings in St. Petersburg and the unpopular Matviyenko was dragging the party even further down, why replace her with a gray, low-profile presidential envoy who has about as much charisma as State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov? For all of her shortcomings ¬ and there were many of them ¬ Matviyenko at least was a colorful and charismatic politician.
Petrov notes that the decision could have been driven by a number of factors.
The Kremlin may have been reluctant to put one of its rising stars -- like say, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak, whose appointment was widely expected -- in a position where he would be forced to waste political capital instituting unpopular social reforms after the 2012 elections.
He also notes that Poltavchenko "does not disrupt the equilibrium that has formed between the major St. Petersburg clans."
I must admit that I was puzzled by the choice of Poltavchenko. Like most other observers, I really expected Kozak to get the nod.
But as I wrote last week, at least according to the Kremlin's logic Poltavchenko does sort of make sense. He checks all the boxes of what they seem want in a regional leader: He's a KGB veteran; a Putin loyalist (he's the only prefect to serve continuously in the same post since Putin created the system in 2000); and he has the reputation of a low-key problem solver, similar to Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin.
Petrov likewise notes the similarities between the Moscow and St. Petersburg appointments -- and thinks it marks a trend:
There is a similarity between the Poltavchenko appointment and that of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Both capitals have thus been placed in the hands of individuals loyal to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and who both come from outside the local political elite...
The Mironov-Matviyenko-Poltavchenko three-step has been taken directly from Putin's 2007-08 playbook when he replaced big-name players with more obscure individuals from his reserve of loyalists. With this round of reshuffling just beginning, more high-profile changes undoubtedly lie ahead.
In a recent article, "Kommersant-Vlast" also noted that Putin's fingerprints were all over the appointment.
"The decision was made in the White House, and the role of Dmitry Medvedev in the operation, apparently, has been reduced to just to sign the decree on the dotted line," the weekly wrote.
Poltavchenko's first job of course will be political -- making sure the ruling United Russia party, whose popularity is sagging badly in St. Petersburg, gets a good result in the December parliamentary elections. As a former KGB man, he will certainly be adept at using administrative resources to push the results in the direction the Kremlin wants.
And just to be sure, United Russia's regional party list will be headed by three popular figures: Kozak, Hermitage Museum director Mikhail Piotrovsky; and Mariinsky Theater director Valery Gergiyev.
-- Brian Whitmore