#13 - JRL 7242
St. Petersburg Times
June 27, 2003
City Election Brings Case of Deja Vu, Again
By Vladimir Kovalev
On my way to work on Tuesday, I saw a long line of cars and buses near St. Isaac's Square stuck in a traffic jam, waiting for a few black cars and their police escort to pass by. Traffic jams are nothing new in St. Petersburg, and I would have dismissed it as a stereotypical snapshot of today's city if I hadn't heard Valentina Matviyenko announce her decision to run for governor just a few minutes previously. When Leonid Brezhnev was at the top of the political pile in the Soviet Union, a popular phrase summing up his ubiquity appeared that translates roughly as "Turn on even an iron and Brezhnev's face will appear on it." The English equivalent would - in the case of the current presidential representative to the Northwest Region - be: "She would turn up to the opening of an envelope."
It occurred to me on Tuesday that, given Matviyenko's rapidly developing penchant for publicity, that the number of her potential voters stuck in traffic waiting for her cavalcade to pass will increase drastically over the next three months. Events over the weekend suggest that not only the city's roads are going to blocked during that time.
It appears that most of St. Petersburg's media outlets are also going to come under increasing pressure. Over the last few weeks, many outlets have already been brought to heel by the Kremlin to make sure that 3.5 million potential voters won't be able to read articles or watch television footage portraying President Vladimir Putin's regional lapdog in a poor light.
Matviyenko's Moscow-backed campaign team could probably accuse me of bias given the lack of any mention so far in this column of City Hall gubernatorial candidate Anna Markova, who announced that she would run for the governor's job on June 5. But, given that Markova has disppeared from public view since then, what can I say about her - good or bad?
Maybe Markova is running scared of the steamroller with which anonymous illwishers threatened her (although she said it was a "friendly threat," whatever one of those is). Maybe she is too busy with her day job as vice governor in charge of resolving emergency situations in the city. The point is that I haven't seen Markova using her what are known as "administrative resources" - exposure through media outlets, for example, or appearances in an official capacity at envelope openings - for gubernatorial-campaign purposes as Matviyenko is doing.
A simple example: I went to the News.yandex.ru Web site and did a search for "Valentina Matviyenko." The search returned 314 hits, of which just 43 were dated June 24, the day she announced her candidacy. A search for "Anna Markova" turned up just 19 results but, surprisingly enough, many of the headlines contained the word "Matviyenko." Coincidence is a funny thing.
Articles No. 30 and 31 of St. Petersburg's gubernatorial-election law say that all candidates employed at the higher levels of federal and local branches of power do not have the right to retain their administrative resources, and must resign for the duration of their election campaign. All they can operate with, according to the law, is an election fund of 50 million rubles (about $1.65 million), most of which they have to raise themselves, as they get just 77,000 rubles (just over $2,500) of city budget money for the campaign.
Of course, despite both declaring their intention to run, neither Matviyenko nor Markova has yet been registered as a candidate, meaning that they both have candidate candidate status, so to speak. This is why the numerous recent examples of Matviyenko using her administrative resources can only be the basis for a discussion about honesty and dishonesty in Russian political life, and no more.
Discussions of that nature have a precedent in St. Petersburg electoral history. In 1996, then mayor Anatoly Sobchak was competing for the city's top political job against his former deputy Vladimir Yakovlev. Like Matviyenko is doing at the moment, Sobchak monopolized the local media, by introducing censorship and banning papers from running articles carrying even so much as a mention of other candidates. It was a fatal mistake - Sobchak lost.
The parallels between the media-related shenanigans of 1996 and the machinations in today's nascent campaign season illustrate that Russian politicians seem remarkably inept when it comes to learning from their past mistakes.
In 1996, four journalists were fired from local daily Nevskoye Vremya by editor Alla Manilova for revealing the censorship that had been introduced at the paper by Sobchak's campaign team. I am still proud of being one of that quartet.
Now, it's sad for me, seven years later, to see Daniil Kotsubinsky and Pyotr Godlevsky, journalists at local television channel Peterburg Television, being taken off the air and put in such a difficult position that they have been forced to consider quitting.
Maybe I would feel a bit different if I hadn't heard, a few days ago, that Manilova - who is still editing Nevskoye Vremya - is being headhunted to be Matvieynko's image maker during the election campaign, and may be appointed head of City Hall's Media Committee if the presidential representative is successful.
If this turns out to be the case, anyone trying to maintain a publically objective stance in St. Petersburg may face serious problems come early October.
And all for one reason - so that Matviyenko only has to open envelopes with her face on them.