St. Pete's Vertical Position

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St. Petersburg will hold its latest elections for deputies to the legislative assembly on March 1, and by all indications they will be carried out in exactly the same fashion as they were before.

United Russia is clearing every obstacle from its path. As usual, an enormous number of candidates from opposition parties -- that is to say any part not in line with United Russia -- were eliminated during the registration stage. As of today, 173 candidates who have been excluded have filed formal grievances with their municipal election committees, and with the elections less than two weeks away, the number of complaints continues to mount. Sidelined candidates have filed more than 100 lawsuits in the municipal courts.

One of the most commonly used methods for eliminating undesirable candidates is to disqualify on "legal" grounds the authenticity of signatures that are required to register a candidate. "Handwriting experts" from the Interior Ministry find mistakes on lists submitted by opposition candidates, and this provides the pretext to disqualify candidates from the vote. One candidate was rejected because on one of the forms he filed, he failed to write that he was a Russian citizen -- even though one of the papers he submitted was a copy of his Russian passport.

It might seem a bit strange that so much effort is being applied to "clean out" opposition candidates in St. Petersburg's municipal elections. After all, it would seem that they don't get in anybody's way when they vote on such trivial issues such as which roads will be repaved. But this is not the case. For example, a Yabloko deputy in the previous municipal legislature introduced a bill to block the construction of the Gazprom skyscraper in the center of St. Petersburg. In addition, municipal deputies are allowed to appeal to public opinion to bar environmentally harmful projects. This is precisely why Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's power vertical has extended its reach to virtually every municipal legislature, stifling all forms of dissent and ensuring that local laws reflect the agenda imposed from above.

While the power vertical is tightening in St. Petersburg, there are signs that its crisis is getting worse. Roughly 20 percent of the stores on Nevsky Prospekt have closed. Recently built business centers remain vacant, and most of the city's construction projects have stopped.

The big foreign automobile plants located in St. Petersburg, which is often called "Detroit of the North," now account for almost 50 percent of all auto construction in Russia, but those factories are turning out significantly fewer cars now. Plans by automakers Nissan and Suzuki to open factories in the city are now uncertain. Automobile dealerships across the country have reported drops in sales from 30 percent to 40 percent in recent months.

Moreover, the decline in industrial output across all sectors have already led to reduced income for the city budget, down 15 percent when compared to January 2008. The city government will soon consider measures for reducing the budget by a dramatic 30 percent. Important infrastructure projects are being postponed or frozen, such as the Orlovsky Tunnel under the Neva River and a new rapid-transit line. The completion of the city's largest long-term construction project, a much-needed dam in the Gulf of Finland, has again been put on hold. It is also unknown when the city's ring road will be completed.

In deciding to reduce the city's budget and freeze major projects, Governor Valentina Matviyenko is hoping for support from Moscow. In a meeting with First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov last week, Matviyenko asked for favorable credit terms for businesses and support for city infrastructure projects and mortgage programs. She also asked for federal assistance for purchasing food products and medicine since St. Petersburg, just like every Russian city, is heavily dependent on imported food and medicine.

Having built a power vertical extending downward to the very bottom rung of the political ladder, obedient governors play an important role for Moscow. In this rigid system, where regions have no freedom to maneuver even while the resources of the federal center are rapidly drying up, the economic and social risks of the crisis inevitably multiply. As a result, Russia's chances of emerging from the crisis look increasingly bleak.

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy.