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Elective Renewal: Matviyenko's Move to the Federation Council May Be the Latest in a Government Drive to Rid Russia of Long-Serving Regional Heads

Valentina Matviyenko with U.S. Official Amidst Crowded RoomAlthough St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko eventually agreed to accept President Dmitry Medvedev's "promotion" to head the Federation Council, she did so after five days of deliberation. And two events this week indicate that she is not going to relinquish her considerable influence in Russia's second city without a fight.

Kommersant reported today that 90 percent of copies of its political weekly Vlast were pulled from the shelves of stores in St. Petersburg. This week's issue contains an unflattering article summarizing Matviyenko's time in office, using her original campaign slogan "Our City is Tired" to describe locals' increasing dissatisfaction with her own governorship.

Furthermore one of the issues that has come to define the later stages of Matviyenko's governorship ­ her unpopular decision to back construction of the 400 meter-tall Gazprom Tower ­ also reared its ugly head again this week. In a rare triumph for civic activism in Russia, St. Petersburg residents demonstrated against construction of the skyscraper in the heart of the city's UNESCO-protected center, and plans were scrapped in December 2010. However, local authorities announced this week that they are now considering going ahead with the project in a different part of the city.

Matviyenko will run for head of the Federation Council though, formally the State's third highest post. But in a country where power resides in informal networks, rather than in stable institutions, the move would mark a major downshift for her. After eight years at the helm of Russia's second city, the apparatus of the Federation Council must seem a limited purview.

"Although the governors are appointed, the leadership expects them to deliver the desired election result," argued Maria Lipman of the Carnegie Moscow Center. "Unlike Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who refused to leave and had to be forced out, Matviyenko was reluctant, but agreed to accept an appropriate position. The chair of the Federation Council is that position."

This is nothing new for Matviyenko, whose career to date has been built on her connections. Matviyenko's 2003 rise to the St. Petersburg governorship owed much to Vladimir Putin's public intervention on her behalf, when he backed her bid on state television. Meanwhile the position currently intended for her on the Federation Council was cleared by the ousting of Just Russia Party Leader Sergei Mironov.

Since Putin cut the direct election of governors in 2004, Matviyenko and her counterparts have depended on approval from the central authorities rather than the backing of local populations. State Duma representatives are still elected however, and one explanation for Matviyenko's likely demotion centers on the December State Duma elections. Matviyenko, a member of the ruling United Russia party, has earned the overwhelming dislike of St. Petersburg residents, not least through numerous corruption scandals tying her son Sergei's flourishing business empire to lucrative city contracts. The governor also alienated locals by shutting out small and medium-size enterprises immediately after her election in 2003. In the winter months, her administration's failure to deal with basic problems like the deadly icicles that hang from the roofs of the city's buildings led to the death of several residents, including children.

Matviyenko is not the only long-serving regional head to be encouraged to leave, rather Medvedev's intervention in St. Petersburg seems to be the latest in a series of removals of large regional chiefs, including the governors of Sverdlovsk, Tatarstan, and Bashkortostan in the last two years. Pavel Salin of think tank The Center for Political Assessments sees Putin as the man behind the changes. "Putin wants to renew the elite, because he sees that some members of the present cadre are not up to the task and don't expect to have to do anything to retain their positions. Without a renewal of the elite, a period of stagnation will be followed by instability."

But Matviyenko has not been elected to the Federation Council yet and considering that Dmitry Medvedev positions himself as a politician committed to enforcing the rule of law, it is surprising that he has stepped beyond his formal presidential competence in quasi-appointing Matviyenko speaker. The proposal from the president and regional chiefs overlooks a three-stage democratic process, which the St. Petersburg governor will nonetheless have to go through to take up the offer.

Before securing election to the Federation Council and then being voted its chairperson, Matviyenko will have to win a seat as a deputy in one of the St. Petersburg municipalities in elections scheduled for August. Unlike higher up, where support from the leadership would ensure her free passage, victory at the municipal level is far from certain.

Although 50 United Russia deputies have reportedly offered to give up their seats to the St. Petersburg boss, her legitimacy will depend partly on progressing through the democratic process, even if this is largely symbolic.

Opposition politicians, including Mironov's Just Russia party, have promised to compete hard in this relatively politically-engaged region, where widespread dissatisfaction with local conditions should provide ample ammunition for anti-Matviyenko candidates. And given the small scale of the competition at municipal level, opposition parties should manage to closely monitor the voting in September's by-elections and later elections closely.

According to Pavel Salin, these very obstacles may play to Matviyenko's advantage, and could lead to her retaining the governorship: "Having being proposed publicly by Medvedev, her failure to win the necessary municipal-level elections would be a serious blow to Medvedev's credibility. Her team will want to exploit this risk to help her hold onto the governorship," Salin said.

But it seems unlikely that the local opposition can undermine the heavy weight backing of other regional heads and the president himself. A transcript of a meeting with Medvedev and Matviyenko published on the Kremlin Web site in late June reflects this support. Having praised her work as governor of St. Petersburg, Medvedev said it was precisely this work that led him to raise her Federation Council candidacy at a meeting with regional governors at his Gorki residence. "It has to be said that they spoke with enthusiasm about your candidature. Firstly, they respect you simply as a colleague, as a governor, as a person who has been successful in their position. Secondly and this is of no small importance, there is a feeling among the governors that the potential of the Federation Council, that is the federal potential, the potential of regional chambers, is perhaps not being fully utilized."

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