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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

An Era Ends With Defeat Of Sobchak

In many ways, Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg since 1991, is an anachronism. Most of the liberal professors and dissidents who rode into politics on Boris Yeltsin's coattails have long since been squeezed out. It is a tribute to the city of St. Petersburg that Sobchak lasted in office to the end of his term.


Gavriil Popov was a rough equivalent of Sobchak -- an intellectual who became mayor of Moscow, also in 1991. But Popov did not last the course. He was pushed aside by the immensely powerful Moscow city bureaucracy, headed by Yury Luzhkov.


The Russian Congress of People's Deputies also had its share of such inexperienced liberal politicians, sometimes principled, sometimes not. Many of these also have fallen by the wayside, not to mention the inexorable purge of liberals from the ranks of Yeltsin's administration and government.


Yeltsin's Kremlin was at first filled with the liberal intelligentsia. Much of the cabinet of acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar was made up of economists best described as academics. Spokesman Vyacheslav Kostikov and Yeltsin's right-hand man Gennady Burbulis were both history professors. The list could go on for pages. For better or worse, they have all gone.


Most have been replaced by bureaucrats and career politicians. Sobchak, a professor of law before he entered politics, was perhaps remarkable mainly because he kept his post until the democratic process gave St. Petersburg voters the chance to boot him out.


That alone is something to rejoice about. In the past it was the bureaucrats who said these liberal thinkers were poor administrators -- this time it was the electorate. And by all accounts, Sobchak did not do a stellar job as mayor.


But St. Petersburg is an anomaly in Russia. The electorate was choosing between men rather than philosophies. Sobchak was beaten, not by a communist, but by his former deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev, who appears to back the basic reform program.


This fact makes it difficult to extract any lessons from the fate of Sobchak for the coming presidential vote. Probably, like Sobchak, Yeltsin will get substantially fewer votes than opinion polls suggest -- simply because this has been true for the incumbent or "party of power" in every election since 1992.


But will the swing voters be voting against Yeltsin? This is the key question. Only if one assumes that voters see Zyuganov as an acceptable alternative to Yeltsin -- who is no more popular than Sobchak -- can the vote in St. Petersburg be seen as a model.


More likely, in the national vote disappointment in Yeltsin will vie with fear of the Communists, and the strongest negative will lose.