Bashkortostan President Rustem Khamitov suggested making Matvienko speaker during Dmitry Medvedev’s meeting with regional governors. He expressed concern that the Federation Council speaker post was still vacant. Medvedev backed him, describing Matvienko as “a perfectly successful governor”.
Seeing as how disagreeing with the President is taboo, the appointment is as good as done. All we can do now is to discuss the causes and effects.
Khamitov’s statement was surely not extemporaneous (although the absence of a Federation Council speaker makes no difference for the governors’ work), with proof coming from Boris Gryzlov, head of United Russia’s Supreme Council, immediately voicing support for the idea. Furthermore, Matvienko received offers from four regions that were willing to have her represent them in parliament. The country’s political hierarchy acts this quickly only when a decision has been made in advance and only technicalities remain to be attended to; however, the technicalities are not so simple.
The law for comprising the Federation Council stipulates that only regional or municipal deputies are allowed to be senators. Matvienko is neither and if she is to become a senator at once, not even the President’s personal wish is enough. She was not on the United Russia list of candidates in the elections to the St Petersburg Legislative Assembly, and the “deferred mandate” that can be assumed if some of the current deputies retires is not an option either. No elections, not even municipal elections, are planned in St Petersburg before 4 December (when the Legislative Assembly is to be elected). No elections are planned before that date anywhere in Russia except in village councils, as the CEC website indicates, but Matvienko being elected chairperson of a village council, for example, the Kavalerskoye rural settlement on Kamchatka or Rozental village municipality in Kalmikia, would have the whole country roaring with laughter …
Once a goal has been set, an early election can be arranged regardless of the snickering: in St Petersburg, municipal heads are lining up to vacate their seat for Valentina Matvienko. They include not only United Russia members: Alexander Shurshev of the Yabloko party said he was “ready to do anything to let Matvienko assume her new job as quickly as possible”. But there are some potential hurdles here: if Matvienko becomes a senator as a member of the St Petersburg legislature her powers will last only until December. She will have to join the United Russia ticket in the elections for the St Petersburg legislature, win a deputy seat and only then make another bid for senator.
Who can guarantee, however, that United Russia will win a majority? What if it does not? Would Matvienko then take her seat at the Federation Council as a representative of the new St Petersburg governor? That may be a contingency plan, because Matvienko’s successor will represent the current legislature, which is under United Russia’s control. But if United Russia, led by Matvienko, loses the election, heads may begin rolling; it is by no means certain that she will keep her seat as Federation Council speaker.
In short, it would be safer for Matvienko to run in a region where the governor is ready to promote her to the Federation Council and still has three or four years to serve, during which nothing would threaten her. Another possibility being discussed is to urgently amend the federal law for her sake. But that option is a bit out of left field…
So much for the technical aspects of the issue. Now onto the political implications. That Valentina Matvienko is one of Russia’s most experienced politicians is a well-known fact: after Yuri Luzhkov, Mintimer Shaimiev and Murtaza Rakhimov all left the scene, she is probably the last representative of the Soviet-era party and economic management authorities who is still at the top. Matvienko was Deputy Chairman of the Leningrad City Executive Committee from 1986 to 1989, after which she became People’s Deputy of the USSR and Head of a Supreme Soviet Committee. She then went on to become a high-ranking diplomat, and come1998 she served as Deputy Prime Minister in four governments over five years. Following that, she was the President’s Plenipotentiary Representative, and then Governor of St Petersburg ever since 2003. True, in 2000 Vladimir Putin had to urgently recall her candidacy in the gubernatorial elections to avoid her being trounced by Vladimir Yakovlev. Matvienko won the 2003 election thanks in large part to state backing and Vladimir Putin’s height in popularity…
How will the people of St Petersburg remember Valentina Matvienko’s eight-year tenure as governor? She is undoubtedly clever, resolute, has a way of winning people over and at a pinch can make a good impression even on her opponents. But being an authoritarian politician, she hates being criticized and sees the opposition not as people whose point of view needs to be taken into account, but as an enemy that should be destroyed if it doesn’t surrender. It is no wonder that protests in St Petersburg are broken up, opposition members are made ineligible to run for public office and the results of elections are often rigged.
Yes, over the last six months – largely through Director Alexander Sokurov’s efforts – the governor, who previously referred to members of the opposition and environmentalists as “a fringe” and “loud-mouthed defenders of the historical centre”, has taken to negotiating with them and has moderated her tone. But the city’s policy has not changed and the essence of that policy is contempt of its citizens. The city bureaucrats routinely use such expressions as “We have decided and it will be so”, “We will not let the citizens bully us around”, “We will not have our hands tied,” and they dismiss popular discontent as “speculation”.
Meanwhile, there are many reasons to be discontent. They are listed on the popular website “St Petersburg without Matvienko”, which has gathered 37,000 signatures in favour of the governor’s resignation. The complaints include the destruction of the city’s historical centre, continued “dense development”, destroying greenery, demolishing private car garages without any real compensation and discriminating against small enterprises. Rising utility rates coupled with the wretched quality of services and the city’s inability to handle the snowstorms of recent years (the word “icicles” has been on everybody’s lips) have also made many people disillusioned with the governor. Other complaints including wasting taxpayer money on prestige “projects of the century” and the government’s vocal support of the infamous Okhta-Centre (construction in the originally designated spot has been annulled, but the administration now supports another Gazprom project, a 500-meter tall tower in Lakhta).
Superimposed on all this was Matvienko’s complicated relationship with Medvedev, various sources say: there were persistent rumours that the President had long been thinking of moving her to another post, but he could not agree with Putin on her successor. Matvienko’s falling approval rating in the city is a fact which cannot but worry United Russia on the eve of city legislature elections: the “locomotive” pulling along the party ticket could become the ball and chain capable of sinking the party’s ship. United Russia’s plans to nominate Valentina Matvienko for a third term as governor caused an uproar in St Petersburg (Matvienko herself said three years ago that she would not run for another term).
Most probably all these factors contributed to Matvienko’s resignation and they may diminish the negative fallout for United Russia in the coming elections. There are practically no other jobs that could be offered to her: a former deputy prime minister and diplomat; a ministerial post would be a demotion (meanwhile the Kremlin is taking pains to manifest Matvienko’s dismissal as a promotion and not a punishment). By the same token the Federation Council speaker will be a loyal politician who will not engage in independent shenanigans and will certainly not form any party or pretend to be in opposition to the government.
Who will succeed Matvienko? She herself has said that there are “At least three people in the government prepared to replace me”, although she didn’t name their names, it is not hard to figure out whom she meant: Vice-Governors Mikhail Oseyevsky (number two at Smolny), Igor Metelsky, Yuri Molchanov (a former provost at Leningrad State University under whom Putin once worked) and Roman Filimonov. Among federal-level figures, Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov and State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov have long been tipped as candidates, and they have now been joined by Sergei Naryshkin, the Presidential Chief of Staff.
Politicians and analysts in St Petersburg give a mixed assessment of Matvienko’s departure. Some hope that the new governor will be more tolerant of the opposition. Others fear that she might end up being remembered as democratic.
Vyacheslav Makarov, leader of United Russia at the St Petersburg Legislature:
Valentina Matvienko is one of the most successful and important governors in the city’s history. She is a professional in every way with colossal experience and a large amount of influence. I am sure that she will serve her country and our city well in her post as the speaker of the Federation Council. I am sure that the long-term strategic projects she initiated will be successfully completed with her at her new position.
Mikhail Amosov, former deputy of the St Petersburg Legislature, member of the Yabloko Party Political Committee:
Matvienko’s departure is a victory for Yabloko, which has long been calling for her resignation. We think appointing a new governor before elections to the city legislature would be the wrong thing to do; it must be done based on the election results. The attempt to speed up Matvienko’s transfer to the Federation Council through the municipality is political manipulation. If she wants to become a senator, let her head up the United Russia ticket in elections for the St Petersburg legislature. It remains to be seen what party will win the elections and gain a seat at the Federation Council and form the city administration.