For all the tricks the Kremlin has perfected over the years to ensure “correct” voting results, what happened last week in St. Petersburg was in a league of its own. The Russian authorities may have invented a new authoritarian know-how: an election organized in secret from candidates and voters.
In June, President Dmitri Medvedev proposed that St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko should become the new speaker of the Federation Council, the Russian Parliament’s upper house. The fact that the president has decided who will lead the legislature surprised no one; such trifles as the separation of powers have long lost any meaning in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The difficulty lay elsewhere: the Federation Council is formed from among municipal and regional legislators—and Matviyenko is neither. To allow the governor to run for a seat, two municipal councils in St. Petersburg—Aleksandrovskaya and Lomonosov (the former imperial residence of Oranienbaum)—hastily called special elections. Vowing to give the governor a run for her money, opponents began preparations for the contest. A wide spectrum of opposition groups—from the radical Another Russiato the liberal Yabloko party—nominated their candidates. Unlike federal elections that feature only government-registered party lists, contests on the local level are still open to individuals and thus allow for opposition participation.
Even with the expected administrative pressure, Matviyenko’s victory was far from assured: the governor, in office since 2003, is widely unpopular in the city for her administration’s incompetence in running basic services, the destruction of historic architecture, the harassment of entrepreneurs, crackdowns on peaceful rallies, and allegations of abuse of power surrounding her family. Experts wondered how Matviyenko—and Putin's United Russia party, which nominated her—would escape humiliation at the hands of voters.
The solution was simple and brilliant. On July 31, Matviyenko announced that she had been nominated to run for election to the municipal councils of Petrovsky and Krasnenkaya Rechka districts. The deadline for nominations in both jurisdictions had passed on July 27. No one—not even the St. Petersburg City Electoral Commission, not to mention opposition parties—was aware that these elections had been called. The only ones in the know, apart from the authorities, were a handful of puppet candidates who will imitate “competition” to the governor. Despite opposition calls for an investigation, the sham vote, scheduled for August 21, has already been ruled lawful. In a few weeks, Valentina Matviyenko will become speaker of the upper house—nominally, the number-three position in Russia’s state hierarchy.
“No one except your minions and clappers will consider this procedure to be an election,” Boris Vishenvsky, one of Yabloko’s leaders and a former legislator himself, wrote to Matviyenko this week. “It will be considered a political swindle. You will leave St. Petersburg in disgrace and will be remembered as a weak and cowardly governor who was afraid of elections.”
There is at least some good news in all this for the citizens of St. Petersburg. One way or another, they will soon be rid of their unpopular governor.