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City news
Governor Supports Liberal For Post
07.02.2007 14:27

government_smolniy By Galina Stolyarova

Staff Writer

Having failed to elect a city ombudsman for nine successive years, St. Petersburg’s Legislative Assembly will make a new attempt on Wednesday.

Human rights advocate Yuly Rybakov has received surprise backing from Governor Valentina Matviyenko, a target of Rybakov’s criticism in the past. A former political prisoner, a fierce critic of City Hall’s policies and a member of liberal party Yabloko, which has also irked Matviyenko with relentless and uncompromising attacks on her record, Rybakov is one of the most unlikely figures in the city’s political landscape to receive such an endorsement.

Competing with Rybakov will be Natalya Yevdokimova, an advisor to Sergei Mironov, speaker of the Federation Council; and United Russia parliamentarian Igor Mikhailov, who previously suggested that the city ombudsman’s position is superfluous and should be scrapped altogether.

It is not uncommon for the parliament’s lawmakers to act against their declared goals or principles. In 2005, during his tenure as a lawmaker for the Party of Life, Stanislav Zybin campaigned to close the city’s Charter Court. But this did not stop him from becoming the judge presiding over the court later that year.

The United Russia faction, which boasts 23 out of the 50 seats in the city parliament, and the Communist faction that has 9 seats said they would support Mikhailov in Wednesday’s vote.

A group of local human rights advocates and liberal politicians sent an open letter to the parliament warning that Mikhailov’s victory would be a farce and calling the candidate a puppet manipulated by pro-government political forces.

Regional ombudsmen are elected by local assemblies to ensure the protection of citizens’ rights in a range of spheres, from consumer rights to freedom of the press.

There are 34 ombudsmen in Russia, although there are 88 subjects in the Russian Federation and each region has the right to elect an ombudsman. The St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly has been trying unsuccessfully to elect an ombudsman for the past nine years.

“The main thing that is wrong with Mikhailov is not his notorious claims that the job of ombudsman is unimportant but the man’s servility,” said political analyst Boris Vishnevsky, a member of the political council of the local branch of Yabloko. “In the whole of St. Petersburg he is only willing to protect the interests of one voter — the governor — with the exception, of course, of his own people. So far he has supported the governor’s every step.”

Yury Vdovin, deputy head of St. Petersburg’s branch of the international human rights group Citizens’ Watch, says that top-level city authorities have never been interested in having an independently-minded ombudsman in the city, largely because the city administration is itself responsible for many human rights abuses.

“The right person for the job must be someone who is unbiased and equally distanced from all structures, be they judicial bodies or the administration,” Vdovin said. “There has always been a very strong pro-governor lobby in the city parliament, and such a person would never stand a chance of being elected.”

Human rights advocates often complain that it proves difficult for a candidate with a background in non-governmental organizations to get elected, whereas former state officials, civil servants and law enforcement agents have proved more successful.

Maxim Reznik, head of the St. Petersburg branch of Yabloko, questioned Matviyenko’s sincerity in endorsing Rybakov and suggested the governor may be playing tricks with citizens in order to improve her public image, which has recently suffered in a series of controversial moves, including her applying pressure against opposition rallies and her unpopular support for the construction of a city center skyscraper to house energy giant Gazprom’s headquarters.

While some critics say that in modern Russia — notorious for corruption, violations of human rights and a system of justice that is often accused of not being even-handed — it is more honest to live without an ombudsman, Vishnevsky said that a respected human rights advocate in the job, even if they seem toothless enthusiasts who set themselves against a corrupt machine, can do much to help the people.

“The police and prosecutors cannot afford to ignore or tell lies to such a person because the next day the ombudsman will go public, call them liars, put them to shame, and be trusted,” Vishnevsky said. “The tragedy is that this sort of person is not getting elected, and we often see token figures in the job across the country.”

Human rights activist Leonid Romankov, who ran unsuccessfully for the ombudsman’s job in 2003, said at this stage doing the job well requires an ability to deal with law enforcement agencies and the judicial system.

“It is important to be able to deal with people like, for instance, the head of the city police, since the police are infamous for using violence against those they detain; the city’s prosecutor general, because the judicial system is known to be tied to and serving the administration; the head of the local prisons department of the Justice Ministry, because prisons are overcrowded and the conditions are horrendous, and so on,” he explained.

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