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The Reluctant Speaker

St. Petersburg's governor Valentina Matviyenko with a giant glass key at the opening ceremony of new cruise passenger terminal in St. Petersburg on May 27.
St. Petersburg's governor Valentina Matviyenko with a giant glass key at the opening ceremony of new cruise passenger terminal in St. Petersburg on May 27.
One would think that being asked to move from being the leader of Russia's second-largest city to a post that puts one second in line for the presidency would be seen as a promotion.

But outgoing St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko didn't exactly see it that way.

When President Dmitry Medvedev offered Matviyenko the job of Federation Council speaker, replacing fellow Petersburger Sergei Mironov, she didn't exactly jump at the opportunity.

Medvedev made the offer last Friday and Matviyenko thought about it over the weekend. She then requested a meeting with Medvedev on Monday.

Ultimately she agreed, albeit reluctantly.

"On the one hand, I certainly feel a responsibility toward the city and before the citizens who have placed their trust in me. On the other hand, I understand that this is a huge responsibility - to work in the Federation Council," Matviyenko said in her Kremlin meeting with Medvedev.

Why the hesitancy? Well, as "Vedomosti" points out in an editorial today, being Federation Council speaker, despite the fact that it is formally the third most prestigious job in Russia (it is second in the line of presidential succession behind the prime minister), is largely an ornamental post.

Matviyenko's saga is not the first. Nor will it be the last one illustrating utter degradation of the Russian Senate and the legislative branch of the government in general. The Federation Council is a purely ornamental structure nowadays and has been it for years...

In Russia, several reforms or rather manipulations wilted political role of the Senate to minimum. The first provisional Federation Council was elected in 1993 in two-mandate districts.

Between 1996 and 2001, the Senate comprised governors and chairmen of regional legislatures. Granted that they depended on the executive branch of the government to a smaller or greater extent, these were politicians who were known and commanded respect. Each
of them was elected in the region he or she actually represented.

As of 2002, the Senate became a legislative body comprising representatives of Russian regions too (one of them appointed by the governor and the other, by the regional parliament).

Considering the so called power vertical (governors are appointed by the president and regional parliaments are controlled by United Russia), it is no wonder that the Federation Council these days includes representatives of the federal center few of whom have anything to do with the region he or she is allegedly represents.

The Federation Council is a group of ex-senators and federal politicians, some of them fired from their previous positions on account of some scandal or other. On the other hand, the upper house of the parliament includes a good deal of young businessmen who need status that goes with the job and the opportunity to be in Moscow where the finances are concentrated and decisions are made. What kind of respect can people such as these command within society? What kind of collective wisdom a body such as this can demonstrate?

"Vedomosti" goes on to point out that the Federation Council has become nothing more than a rubber-stamp.

Statistical data show it plainly. The number of the draft laws turned down by the Federation Council keeps decreasing. It has been between 3 and 6 per year since 2003. The FederationCouncil turned down 4 draft laws during the spring session in 2010 and not a single one during the autumn session. No raft laws at all were turned down during the spring session this year. Eight-nine draft laws were defeated in 1997.

This, of course, should not surprise seasoned (or even passive) Russia watchers. Under Putin's rule, everything institution -- the State Duma, the courts, the governors, the regional legislatures -- has become a rubber stamp for the ruling team, the 20-30 officials who make most of Russia's consequential decisions. That is how Putin's vaunted Power Vertical is supposed to work.

But Matviyenko's Hamlet on the Neva routine just illustrated in especially stark fashion.

Why this is also interesting now is that an increasing number of top officials, including members of the ruling team like Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and Medvedev himself, are acknowledging in public that the vertical has outlived its usefulness.

-- Brian Whitmore


About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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