After a shady city council election, St. Petersburg's deeply unpopular governor appears poised to become the third-most powerful politician in Russia. How on earth did this happen?
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.
Matviyenko is perfect for a Federation Council spot, and the untouchability it confers, because she has become an albatross around United Russia's neck. Her publicly available poll numbers may be low, but according to two people familiar with the much more thorough secret internal polls commissioned by the Kremlin, the real figures are even lower.
"The people in the mayor's office are walking around with eyes like dinner plates," said a St. Petersburg source with access to the polls. "United Russia is panicking." Why? Because her polls mirror United Russia's fall from public favor across the country. Kremlin polls are said to put the party's average nationwide approval ratings at below 50 percent. In St. Petersburg and other urban areas, it's even lower, around 30 percent.
This is bad. United Russia has big parliamentary elections coming up in December. Three months later, either Putin or Medvedev (probably the former) have to be swept convincingly into power, without too much outcry about election fraud. Matviyenko has the real potential to fumble the parliamentary elections in the second-most-important Russian city, and she is inexorably tied to her mentor, Putin. She simply had to go.
But how? The very reason she needed to be moved -- her unpopularity -- would make it hard for her to get elected virtually anywhere. Matviyenko and her Kremlin backers, however, proved up for the challenge.
First, there need to be an election for her to win, so a few local deputies in four municipalities were encouraged to resign, automatically triggering new elections to replace them. Through a sneaky set of misdirections, Matviyenko then forced all potential opponents out of the race by not allowing anyone to figure out where she was actually planning to run until the 30-day period for registering candidacy had expired. United Russia officials told reporters that Matviyenko would run in the Lomonosov municipality, and the opposition began registering candidates there. Then, on July 31, Matviyenko announced she was running in two other precincts: Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka. By that point, the registration for other candidates was already closed. The candidates who did end up listed on the ballot against her appeared to be United Russia plants; one was a retired coat check worker who had been away from St. Petersburg for months at her dacha.
"You can't call this an election," said Boris Vishnevsky, a local reporter for Novaya Gazeta and a member of the national council of the liberal Yabloko party. "That would be like saying, OK, we're going to have the World Cup but we're not going to announce when it is or who's participating in it. When we do, the only game will be between the national team of England and some unheard of country where no one even knows what soccer is. You call that a World Cup?"
There were other bizarre happenings, too. Former prime minister and opposition heartthrob Boris Nemtsov decided to go to St. Petersburg to campaign in the municipalities where Matviyenko was running. He canvassed apartment buildings and handed out fliers telling people to spoil their ballots (in a Russian election, if 40 percent of ballots can't be read, the vote is moot). He was quickly arrested; apparently, it had been made illegal to campaign against -- rather than for -- candidates.
When he was released a few hours later, he was attacked by activists from the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, who pelted him with rocks and eggs. Nemtsov and his colleagues jumped into a car and sped away, at which point they were stopped by two cop cars. According to Nemtsov, the police waited to approach Nemtsov until Nashi had caught up. That's when the police asked Nemtsov to get out of the car -- and into the line of egg-fire. When Nemtsov refused, he was arrested again -- the second time within 24 hours. As the police lead him away, a crowd of old women materialized by the side of the road, rained down abuse on Nemtsov, and praised the poor, defenseless Matviyenko. Local bloggers later identified one of them as the same babushka who had tearfully thanked the departing governor at a recent public appearance. Coincidence? Probably not.
"After we were arrested, the police flooded the building we had been canvassing," Nemtsov told me later, safely ensconsed in a Moscow café. "It was a 15-floor building, and they put a cop on each floor. They weren't letting people back into the building and started questioning everyone about the flyers." He took a sip of his fresh-squeezed celery juice and added, "All the people in the building probably didn't care about the elections before, but I'm pretty sure that now they'll go out and vote against Matviyenko!"
Whether they did or not, we likely won't ever know, since there were no independent election observers allowed into the election precincts this past Sunday. Nor was anyone allowed into the office of the municipal election committee. In election precinct No. 1348, in the Petrovsky municipality, local United Russia boss Vyacheslav Makarov stormed into the office and blared commands at the United Russia observers. "Look at what you have going on here!" he bellowed. "Look at all these -- these -- journalists!" He said the last word as if it were quite a dirty one. "Get them out of here!"
Makarov, a former colonel in the Russian military, probably got used to hollering commands back when he was an instructor at a nearby military academy. And all day, the trickle of voters into this precinct all looked strangely alike: perfect posture, buzzed hair, a martial step. Despite their civilian clothing, it was clear who they were: cadets from the same academy, which has a storied history of marching out its students to participate in elections, always for United Russia. It wasn't surprising when the Petrovsky municipality delivered 95.6 percent for Matviyenko.
In Krasnenkaya Rechka, the other municipality, the voting was accompanied by music, as well as free souvenir snapshots and medical exams for people who voted. Most of them voted for Matviyenko, either because they didn't know the other candidates or because they felt her victory was inevitable. "It doesn't really matter," said Tatyana Sedova after she cast her ballot. "You can't do anything against the state. We're just regular people; they've already decided everything for us."
Another voter, who didn't give her name, said she voted for Matviyenko because the governor had the elevator in her building painted gray. "And gray is my favorite color."
Observers weren't given much access at this municipality either, and I was kicked out of the precinct along with a Russian reporter because he had the temerity to sit on the floor, something that was not on the short list of what journalists are explicitly allowed to do during elections.
"It's not very nice," one police officer told him. Another added that they were kicking him out for his own good: "What if you sit on the floor and catch a cold and get prostatitis?"
In the end, the unexpected didn't happen there either. Matviyenko swept Krasnenkaya Rechka with 94.5 percent of the vote, and announced the next day that she was taking off for Moscow to join the political retirement home known as the Federation Council.
Her replacement in Petersburg for now -- and likely for the future -- is a man named Georgy Poltavchenko, a top-ranking bureaucrat known for his faceless, diplomatic efficiency in dealing with unruly colleagues. In this, Matviyenko's departure resembles that of another celebrity Russian mayor with inexplicably rich relatives: Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov, who was unceremoniously booted from office last September, was also replaced by a quietly loyal, anonymous bureaucrat. There was no chance that his replacement, Sergey Sobyanin, would ever upstage Putin -- and there's no chance that Poltavchenko will either. And now that the last of the outsized mayors has made her departure, that stage is increasingly Putin's for the taking.
As for Matviyenko, she had one matter to see to before leaving office: For her highly characteristic final act as governor, she handed over a big chunk of city land to Alla Pugacheva, Russia's original diva and the country's answer to Cher, Barbara Streisand, and Elizabeth Taylor. Pugacheva, who looks not unlike like Matviyenko, has plans to build a theater named after herself. Matviyenko, known for cutting generous development deals at the city's expense, sold the land to Pugacheva's consortium for 39 million rubles. Experts say its value is at least 10 times that. Rumored to be connected to the project? Matviyenko's son, Sergey.
ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images