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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EDITORIAL: Putin Plays Machiavelli In St. Pete




Vladimir Putin is neatly settling old scores in his native St. Petersburg.


Putin and his mentor, Anatoly Sobchak, lost control of St. Petersburg in 1996, when Vladimir Yakovlev, the city's public works tsar, unseated Sobchak. Putin ran Sobchak's failed election campaign.


During the December Duma elections, Putin and Yakovlev again waged a proxy war: Putin as the wildly popular president-in-waiting behind Unity, Yakovlev as one of the Fatherland-All Russia troika. Since then, however, prodigal son Yakovlev has come home.


And for a moment there, it seemed Putin would embrace him. The acting president publicly blessed Yakovlev's scheme to move gubernatorial elections in St. Petersburg to March 26, the same day as presidential elections. Arm in arm, Putin and Yakovlev would run as incumbents, each delivering voters to the other.


But Yakovlev had to convince the city council. He apparently thought he had a deal with lawmaker Sergei Mironov, under which Mironov would deliver March 26 and in exchange become speaker of the legislature. Instead, Mironov torpedoed the vote, prompting temper tantrums among Yakovlev's allies.


Now, gubernatorial elections will be held in May. And the talk in St. Petersburg is that Yakovlev's early elections were blocked at Putin's bidding. Yakovlev's hands are tied - he will have to prove his loyalty by delivering a big Putin vote on March 26. Then Putin will have the luxury of helping or discarding him.


Perhaps most interesting, however, is the hope-tinged reactions in St. Petersburg circles to this uninspiring Machiavellian intrigue: "Perhaps Putin wants to back a liberal governor!" St. Petersburgers Sergei Stepashin and Anatoly Chubais come up as possibilities.


Liberal St. Petersburgers are so eager to see a good tsar in Putin that they even entertain hopeful fancies that Alexander Nikitin, the environmentalist persecuted as a spy by Putin's FSB, was actually saved by Putin. A court recently struck down the case against Nikitin; some in St. Petersburg wonder if it wasn't given permission to do so by Putin himself.


Then there is Dmitry Yakushkin in Washington, telling America that once Putin is elected he will be his own man and will champion economic reform. Predictably, liberals applaud yet another double-game - this time against the broader public.


Is there a recurring theme in all of this? Yes. A professional slyness and dishonesty about one's intentions - one the public itself enables by willfully choosing to put its faith in the nicest Putin imaginable.


- Matt Bivens