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City news
Governor To Back Ruling Party
09.28.2007 15:54

Valentina_Matvienko By Galina Stolyarova

Staff Writer

Governor Valentina Matviyenko’s decision to join the United Russia regional party list for December elections to the State Duma has provoked a sour response from both liberal politicians and human rights advocates.

“This means that even more government resources will be invested in the United Russia election campaign,” said Boris Vishnevsky, a political analyst and member of the political council of the local branch of democratic party Yabloko.

He argues that the party has made a mistake by including Matviyenko on the list. “The governor has recently become strongly associated with the things most hated in this city, such as in-fill construction, the shortage of medicines, the stifling of small business and corruption. These ailments are now widespread in St. Petersburg.”

Talking to reporters this week, Governor Matviyenko admitted that she has no plans to become an MP.

“I have agreed to be on the party lists entirely and purely in an effort to convince as many people as possible to take part in the elections,” the governor said, adding that she is not planning to join United Russia.

Russian legislation allows political parties to include a modest percentage of non-party members on their election lists.

In local political jargon Matviyenko will, by agreeing to be placed on a party list, be regarded as a “steamer” — a prominent person used to draw voters to the polls for the duration of the election, like a railway engine drawing carriages and then retiring to the sidings.

Boris Pustyntsev, chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of the human rights group Citizens’ Watch, sees Matviyenko’s direct involvement as an attempt to entice apathetic elderly voters to the ballot box.

“There is still a large group of conservative and rather inert voters who believe in a paternalistic state of the kind many of them experienced during the Soviet years. And they would take Matviyenko’s intervention as a signal to act,” said Pustyntsev. “Put simply, the respect for the ruler is so great, that if the ruler calls, they will obey.”

Matviyenko plans to remain in office as governor for the duration of the election campaign.

In 2002 the State Duma passed a measure, proposed by democratic party Yabloko, which stipulated that governors and other top-ranking officials who are placed on a party list must take a break from their duties for the duration of an election campaign. The amendment sought to prevent the government machine and state resources being used in support of party aims.

But two years ago the pro-Putin United Russia party, which holds an overwhelming majority in the Russian parliament, nullified the amendment. Critics allege this move gave a green light to the “steamer” strategy, which they believe encourages political corruption.

Russia’s place on the annual Corruption Perception Index published Wednesday by the campaign group Transparency International, has dropped from 127th to 145th place. The ranking puts Russia alongside Gambia, Indonesia and Togo in its level of corruption.

“Political corruption is the most cynical form of graft as it undermines the faith of citizens in justice and people’s rights,” said Vishnevsky, analysing the use of “administrative resources.”

“When we say ‘administrative resource’ it doesn’t only mean state privileges like cars, drivers and dachas, it means unlimited power to push decisions benefiting a narrow circle in the political elite and the ability to limitlessly brainwash the Russian people through nationwide television channels, all of which are now under state control.”

According to Georgy Satarov, head of the Moscow-based anti-corruption think-tank INDEM, the phrase “administrative resources” means the use by state executives of the government machine to support political allies.

Meanwhile United Russia leader Boris Gryzlov’s welcome to Matviyenko was low-key and matter-of fact.

“The decision was essentially a formalization of the governor’s relations with the party,” Gryzlov said.

But then the politician went on to praise the governor for her support.

“I think that the work that was being done during the March 11 regional elections was implemented with the active participation of Valentina Matviyenko,” Gryzlov said.

His words were not consistent with the formally independent position that Matviyenko had been maintaining. Matviyenko is one of the very few Russian governors who has refrained from joining United Russia, or its pro-Kremlin rival, Just Russia. She follows the footsteps of her close ally, president Vladimit Putin, who admits having helped set up United Russia but has never expressed a desire to become a member.

Despite repeated statements that her position is to “remain above the fight,” Matviyenko’s close ties with the ruling party have always been an open secret.

The most notorious example of what was widely regarded as lending a helping hand to United Russia was during the elections to the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly earlier this year when the city was flooded with billboards showing Matviyenko shaking hands with Vadim Tyulpanov, the local United Russia leader under the slogan “Together We Can Do Everything.”

Another breed of posters with picturesque views of St. Petersburg said: “Our president is Vladimir Putin, our governor is Valentina Matviyenko, our party is United Russia.”

Although the posters could have been confused with political campaigning, United Russia officials defended it as “social advertising.”

While state executives are forbidden from endorsing any party during election campaigns in the media, any public statement they may make referring to a party could be seen as a passing reference, as long as officials do not directly call for voters to support a specific party.

A popular tool is to organize a televised discussion, where state executives discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various political forces.

“The law is riddled with holes: it restricts campaigning for political parties but does not say a world about supporting individual politicians,” Satarov said. “The legislation is like muddy water.”

As Yabloko’s Vishnevsky points out, Russia’s frequently changing and loosely written legislation leaves everything to interpretation.

“Naturally, the courts, incorporated into the so-called ‘vertical of power’ system, will predictably rule in favor of the ruling clan,” the expert said.

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