St. Petersburg’s increasingly unpopular governor, Valentina Matviyenko, walked away with more than 90 percent of the vote in each of the two city districts where she competed this weekend for a councilor’s seat. You might remember Galina Stolyarova’s column last month explaining that Matviyenko had been tipped to become the new leader of the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia’s parliament. To do so, however, she had to be elected to a local council, nominated as its regional representative to the Federation Council, and then chosen by the members of the Federation Council as their leader. The word went out across the land. Local officials resigned, councils were dissolved, Matviyenko had her choice of places to represent. She chose two districts in St. Petersburg (that you can run for two district councils at the same time is one of the many things this episode has taught me). The elections were held this weekend. According to Interfax, Matviyenko took 95.61 percent of the vote in the Petrograd district and 97.29 percent in the Krasnenkaya Rechka district. Turnout in Petrograd was about 37 percent and in Krasnenkaya Rechka about 30 percent, which the Moscow Times — though it had somewhat lower figures — called “astonishingly high levels for a by-election” (again, live and learn).

If you’re wondering how (or even if) political operatives try to get people interested in excruciatingly stage-managed elections like this, I recommend Alexandra Garmazhapova’s sad and hilarious fly-on-the-wall piece in openDemocracy. Garmazhapova sat in on a secret meeting of local officials meant to ensure Matviyenko’s success in the Krasnenkaya rechka district. She quotes the head of the Kirov district, Alexey Kondrashov, as telling the meeting:

We have a strategically important task ahead of us. We need to make sure this election campaign goes as smoothly as possible. Election day falls on a weekend, meaning many people will be at their dachas, on holiday. We need the best turnout possible. If just 10% of voters turn up to elect the governor, that will look ridiculous! We need to make people stay in the city! We need to run markets, cultural events, heath days, promo events, lotteries, free lunches for World War II veterans. It won’t cost all that much money — and it will pay itself back. “Maxidom”, “Continent”, “Boulevard”, we’re expecting your support and suggestions before Wednesday! You should send them into the Organisation Department.

Who will replace Matviyenko in St. Petersburg? In openDemocracy last month, Dmitri Travin wrote:

The distribution of governors throughout the big cities which attract huge funding streams is mostly fought over and settled by the various groups inside the Kremlin who seek to control these streams.

The most likely explanation is that the appearance on the scene of a new Petersburg governor will mean some companies will get stronger and others weaker, so certain people will stand to gain (or lose) millions, if not billions, of dollars. Influential Kremlin bosses are probably already lobbying for one of their people to be appointed in Matviyenko’s place as governor of St Petersburg so that the groups under their control earn money, rather than losing it.

For now, Georgy Poltavchenko, the presidential envoy to St. Petersburg, will be the city’s acting governor. In a biography that will sound eerily familiar, Poltavchenko is a former KGB officer who held regional and federal positions in Leningrad/St. Petersburg throughout the 1990s.

Barbara Frye

Barbara Frye is Transitions Online’s managing editor. Email: barbara.frye@tol.org

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