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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Matviyenko Quits Petersburg Race

Valentina Matviyenko, until this week the Kremlin's favored candidate for the post of St. Petersburg governor, officially bowed out of the election race Wednesday, and President-elect Vladimir Putin appeared to seal his sudden switch of support for the incumbent Vladimir Yakovlev by making an unexpected brief visit to the city.

"I should withdraw from the election campaign. I am making this decision with a heavy heart, believe me. I am leaving the race, but not the city," Matviyenko said Wednesday evening in remarks broadcast on NTV television.

Matviyenko said she was forced to abandon the campaign because duty called her to continue her work in government. She called on her electorate to vote for Igor Artemyev, the former city finance chief and Yabloko candidate.

Her announcement came after Putin unexpectedly recalled Matviyenko from vacation to a Kremlin meeting, where he withdrew his previous enthusiastic support for her candidacy and asked her to stay in Moscow and join a new Cabinet to be formed after his May 7 inauguration.

Putin's decision came as Matviyenko was lagging far behind in pre-election polls with just six weeks before the May 14 vote. It also came one day after Yakovlev was called to the Kremlin for talks with Putin's chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin, who is widely regarded as being tied to tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

The Russian media has been speculating that Berezovsky and the old Kremlin guard have been pulling strings to keep Yakovlev in power - regardless of Putin's wishes in that regard.

Berezovsky on Tuesday confirmed he supported Yakovlev's candidacy.

"We need to ensure the continuity of power, especially in the regions," he said in a telephone interview. "Yakovlev has made many mistakes, but the alternative candidate was just not strong enough to control the problems plaguing the city."

But he denied there was a plot afoot to weaken Putin, who has often declared his aim of restoring Kremlin control over unruly regions. The St. Petersburg election had been seen as a litmus test of the new president's will - and one taking place in his former hometown, where Putin and Yakovlev both once served in the same city administration as deputy mayors.

"It's one thing to take control by making sure regional leaders meet their duties and don't break the law, but it's another to rule them directly. Regional governors should be independent figures," Berezovsky said.

He denied earlier press reports that he had sent imagemakers to St. Petersburg to polish Yakovlev's campaign.

Putin on Wednesday played down reports that he had forced Matviyenko to withdraw.

"It was her decision," he said in remarks reported by NTV during a visit to the far north city of Murmansk. "When I asked her to return to government ... I didn't mean that she should stop her election campaign. After all, I conducted my campaign while carrying on working. We were coming to a critical moment in forming the government and she is one of the most successful social ministers. I needed her to join our work."

That seemed at odds with Itar-Tass reports Tuesday and Matviyenko's own comments, both of which stated flatly that Putin asked Matviyenko to drop out of the race.

The president-elect made an unexpected visit to St. Petersburg around midnight Tuesday and stayed on into midday Wednesday. The official reason for Putin's stay in the city was that the presidential jet was forced to make an unscheduled layover because of poor weather conditions.

But NTV reported that commercial flights were having no problem visiting either St. Petersburg or Murmansk. And according to Yakovlev, he and Putinstayed up most of the night in meetings.

"I only got to bed at 3 a.m.," Yakovlev said. "We talked about city business, about federal business and about the pre-election campaign."

Matviyenko also arrived back in St. Petersburg on Wednesday for talks with her campaign staff before she made a final decision over whether to run. She did not publicly announce her decision until after 6 p.m.

The Kremlin's swift reversal on Matviyenko left the parliamentary faction of the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, in disarray.

Faction leader Sergei Kiriyenko said democratic forces had now lost a great deal of time in finding a candidate to stand against Yakovlev for the elections.

"The situation is bad," he said. "[Putin's decision] means that Yakovlev will be governor again, and St. Petersburg will carry on turning into the capital of crime for another four years."

He said that a "grave mistake" had been made when Yabloko member and former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin was persuaded earlier in March to withdraw his candidacy for the post.

SPS officials from St. Petersburg put forward Yuly Rybakov, a local deputy to the Duma, while SPS members in Moscow said there was some discussion of backing Yabloko's Artemyev.

However, even if all 25 candidates running for the seat against Yakovlev were to unite behind a single candidate, the chances of unseating Yakovlev remain "very small," SPS co-leader Irina Khakamada said on NTV's "Hero of the Day" program Wednesday.