ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — About halfway through last week's controversial elections in two St. Petersburg municipalities, the state television channel Rossiya showed up to election precinct No. 1348 to film the proceedings. The young TV reporter buttonholed a tall young man with a dim face and a pink shirt -- an election observer sent by the ruling party, United Russia.
"So," said the reporter. "We just need you to stand here and say everything is going well."
"Everything is going well," said the election observer. "We are very pleased with the high turnout."
In fact, everything was going swimmingly, both for the observer and his candidate, the former governor of St. Petersburg, Valentina Matviyenko. As the other United Russia observers chastised reporters for talking and tried to keep photographers away from the voting booth, Matviyenko was just a few hours away from winning representation to the municipal council in a landslide.
Why would the governor of Russia's second city, one of the most recognizable politicians in the country, demote herself to the municipal level? Simple, really: The election is the first move in a Kremlin-orchestrated backdoor promotion for Matviyenko. Now that she's won the seat, she's eligible to replace Sergei Mironov, the deposed speaker of the Federation Council (the Russian senate, whose members are chosen from among elected regional officials only -- that is, not governors). This will make her the No. 3 politician in Russia, the person with access to the nuclear buttons should Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin become incapacitated.
In the upside-down world of Russian politics, Matviyenko's upcoming promotion, expected to be finalized by September, will be richly deserved. Over eight years of controversial, bullheaded rule, Matviyenko polarized this exceptionally educated, cosmopolitan city. In 2003, she was elected with nearly two-thirds of the vote. Three years ago, her approval rating was 35 percent; this July, it had nearly halved, to 18 percent -- and this during a time when St. Petersburg was being resuscitated by rising oil revenues.
Matviyenko largely spent her time antagonizing her subjects. At the end of 2006, she signed the city onto a joint project with Gazprom to build the Okhta Center, a glass stalagmite that was to reach over 1,300 feet into the city's firmament. Unfortunately for Gazprom and Matviyenko, the proposed plan was taller than the city's limit on vertical construction (a la Washington, D.C.) -- by 1,150 feet. St. Petersburgers proved surprisingly tied to the historical architecture of their city. Opposition to the project brought thousands into the streets, in one of the most organized and powerful -- and one of the very, very rare -- lasting Russian civil society movements of the past decade. Last fall, Matviyenko had to give in and agreed to move the project to a new location where the tower wouldn't violate the city's neo-classical skyline.
Since then, she has been involved in other controversial construction projects, including a posh $100 million judo center for the Yawara-Neva Judo Club, of which Putin happens to be the honorary president. There was the Sea Façade, a public-private venture to build an expensive complex of ports for which the city government -- rather than the private investors -- bears much of the risk. Then there was the project to renovate the famous Kirov Stadium, the costs of which mysteriously balloon every year. Add to that the utter inability of the city to deal with heavier-than-expected snowfalls last winter -- and the more-deadly-than-usual icicles, which dropped into strollers. Meanwhile, Matviyenko's son Sergey grew so fabulously wealthy in such a short period of time that many suspect him of cashing in on his mother's connections.
So why is this woman about to become the speaker of the senate? In fact, this is the Kremlin's way of putting her out to pasture. It's hard to recall a time when the Federation Council has ever voted against any legislation; it's also hard to name a single person in the council, but easy to recall why they land there: Many regional elites, given their storied, shady pasts, can hardly do without the immunity this post offers them.