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St.Petersburg Times, December 30, 2003

Presidential Poll Eclipses 2003 Events

By Vladimir Kovalev

Despite the city's 300th anniversary celebrations being the major event in St. Petersburg's cultural and political life this year, local politicians say it was overshadowed by the looming presidential elections for which the October gubernatorial and this month's State Duma elections were merely dry runs.

A big reshuffle took place within factions in the Legislative Assembly in favor of the United Russia party under the direct orchestration of the president's representative office to the Northwest region and the election of the Kremlin-backed governor, Valentina Matviyenko. The city's liberal spirit bowed down at the feet of the presidential administration, the politicians say.

Having completed his task of clearing the political field for Matviyenko to be elected as the city governor, Viktor Cherkesov, her predecessor, left his post in March to head the National Anti-Drug Committee in Moscow. On June 16, then governor Vladimir Yakovlev was appointed deputy prime minister to work on reform of communal services.

Oksana Dmitriyeva, a State Duma lawmaker and head of the Business Development party, said the authorities have yet to understand why only 28.24 percent of voters turned out for the gubernatorial elections. If such an extremely low turn out is repeated at the presidential elections, there is a risk they will be declared invalid, she said.

"The main political conclusion of the year is that the authorities have to learn from this lesson," Dmitriyeva said last week at a conference.

Matviyenko's mandate came from only 63.16 percent of about a quarter of St. Petersburg's 3.7 million eligible voters.

"For an ordinary resident in Moscow such a topic is not interesting," Igor Shatrov, head of the Moscow branch of the information agency Rosbalt, said at the conference. "It is interesting for political analysts, experts and journalists from St. Petersburg."

He said that when Russian journalists visited Switzerland in the late 1980s, they talked to a construction worker who said he knew who the Soviet president was, but had no idea who the president of Switzerland was.

"He remembered the name of the previous president of Switzerland because he worked with him on the same construction site," Shatrov said. "When we have reached the stage of development in our country where people don't know who the president is, then we will know that everything will be fine.

"No one will be surprised or worried whether people go to vote or not," he added. "They have to live and work."

Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the Yabloko faction in the Legislative Assembly, said the results of the Duma elections both nationally and in St. Petersburg show that people want to return to the past. The liberal Yabloko party failed to break the 5-percent barrier to enter the Duma, according to the Central Election Commission.

"The main result of the year is that the current thaw is finished," he said, alluding to the so-called thaw under Nikita Krushchev, who relaxed authoritarian role after Stalin's death before being thrown from power by forces that wanted a return to a hard line.

"A majority of people went to the polling stations and consciously voted to turn the country back [to the state] it was 20 to 30 years ago," Vishnevsky said last week in an interview.

"We are witnessing a complete suppression of independent media and are living in conditions when any criticism of the party of power [United Russia] is treated as a crime against the state," he added. "We are facing a backlash that many have talked about."

"If the dissidents of the early 90s were told about how things are now ... that a former KGB officer would become president of the Russian Federation, they would have treated it as a bad joke," Vishnevksy said.

Yury Vdovin, co-chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of international human rights organization Citizen's Watch, agreed.

"The imposition of managed democracy has led us straight back to the U.S.S.R.," Vdovin said Monday in a telephone interview. "The city parliament is distant from voters and is just an extension of the [city] administration.

"Instead of a division of powers, we have one power now ... and the journalists have restored a genetic memory of some kind to defend the administration in any way they can," he added.

"There's one hope left: that hidden forces in the federal administration will undertake serious liberal reforms in conditions of a managed parliament, but this is not a big hope," he said. "This a very serious break in the development of democracy [in Russia], but it cannot be a full stop. The solid positions of the United States and the European Union would not allow that to happen and sooner or later all these [nationalists] are going to be washed away."

Yelena Babich, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the nationalist Liberal-Democrat party, said the year had been exciting.

"The year was so filled up with events that it became a center for all the world for the 300th anniversary celebrations," she said last week. "All the world's attention was on the city and its name [is now] closely linked to the president."

"During the gubernatorial elections attention of all the country was on St. Petersburg." Babich added. "Elections elsewhere were not that interesting for the [national] public .. And again, that election was marked by close ties to the president."

Joseph Diniskin, a Moscow-based political analyst and co-chairman of the National Strategy Council, an analytical structure with close ties to the presidential administration, said that a council study showed a solid base for a market economy has been formed in Russian society.

"From 35 percent to 45 percent of the population are not concerned about the authorities, but are occupied with making their own rational choices," he said last week. "Another 15 percent to 20 percent are changing the way they think and will soon be joining them."

"This way there's a base for a market economy and democracy is in a state of formation in the country," he said. "We have a principally new Russia now."

But Yabloko's Vishnevsky was skeptical about the analyst's conclusion.

"What percent of the population does he think is interested in the market economy," he asked. "The percentage of people not concerned with the authorities, but in making their own way, was the same in Soviet times."


See also:

the origianl at

Presidential elections 2004

St.Petersburg Times, December 30, 2003

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