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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Is Matviyenko a Russian 'Iron Lady'?

APValentina Matviyenko
She may be President Vladimir Putin's choice to be the country's first woman governor, but the front-runner for Sunday's runoff in St. Petersburg is not necessarily a shoo-in for the job.

As a former deputy prime minister and ambassador, Valentina Matviyenko can certainly claim a wealth of experience in city and national government.

But electoral success has so far proved elusive for the 54-year-old from Shepetovka, Ukraine, who last month compared her career path to that of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the "Iron Lady" who won three general elections in a row.

"I'm told that Thatcher also started as a pharmacist," Matviyenko said. "Another coincidence is that she began her career from the youth organization of her party, and I started working in the Komsomol."

But the comparisons may end there if she fails to win a race she started as odds-on favorite.

Matviyenko narrowly failed to win the first round on Sept. 21, falling just short of an outright majority with 48.9 percent of the vote.

And she has found it hard to dispel the impression that she is back in the city as Putin's handpicked candidate for another bite at the cherry.

In the 2000 St. Petersburg gubernatorial election, she pulled out of a challenge to Governor Vladimir Yakovlev while trailing badly in the polls. This Sunday, she hopes to make it third time lucky in a straight runoff against Yakovlev's vice governor, Anna Markova.

Last month Matviyenko walked into a political firestorm when she controversially received Putin's public backing on national television. The president wished her "luck in the election," a step that rival candidates claimed violated election laws that ban senior government officials campaigning on behalf of candidates.

Matviyenko stayed on the ballot after the Supreme Court ruled she had not violated campaign rules and her appearance was "not of a campaign nature."

But she could yet face another opponent: voter apathy. While in the low-turnout first round, the goal was to win 50 percent of the votes, according to local election rules this time the successful candidate must gain more votes than "Against All Candidates," otherwise the election would have to be run all over again in a year's time.

Matviyenko's failure to win on the first ballot came despite a well-funded campaign, with the use of administrative resources at her disposal, after Putin reassigned Matviyenko from her post as deputy prime minister in charge of social issues to presidential envoy for the Northwestern Federal District in March.

Yakovlev welcomed her appointment, as he had gotten involved in a number of highly public spats with her predecessor as envoy, Viktor Cherkesov.

In this new role, Matviyenko was ideally placed to gear up for a gubernatorial bid as Yakovlev, whose second term as governor was due to run out in 2004, took up the offer of a deputy prime minister's job in Moscow.

With Yakovlev announcing his departure during the city's 300th anniversary celebrations in June, Matviyenko was ready to roll for a fall election, quickly marshaling a large campaign fund. Meanwhile, her rivals were caught on the hop, as they had expected to raise funding for an election next year.

But while Matviyenko's detractors are often wary of going on the record with their complaints, plenty of those giving testimonials are happy to do so.

Nikolai Petrov, an expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center, called Matviyenko a "self-made woman" with good communication skills.

"She wins hands down when compared with her predecessor as envoy in St. Petersburg, Viktor Cherkesov, with his gloomy, secretive face," Petrov said. "She is open, public and charming, and she is a local. She communicates well, and she looks better in real life than she appears on television."

Lyudmila Verbitskaya, the rector of St. Petersburg State University, became another fan after visiting Matviyenko on fundraising trips to Moscow.

"I had the impression that she was the first to turn on the light in the White House and the last to turn it off," she said.

The director of the city's world-famous Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, said in a statement posted on Matviyenko's web site that the restoration of the museum's storage facility "into the world's best for art storage" was made possible due to Matviyenko's help.

And he added that one of her biggest pluses is her predictability.

"It's the first time we got a candidate about whom we know perfectly well what she is able to do," he said. "If Valentina Ivanovna does things the same way as before, with the same enthusiasm and knowledge, it would not be bad."

Alexander Kolyakin, the representative of Moscow City Hall in St. Petersburg, remembers working with Matviyenko in the 1970s and '80s. "She is very concrete, clear and straightforward," he said. "And she is not embarrassed by her past, like some people are who used to occupy high positions in the Communist Party and now claim to have been secretly opposed to the Soviet system."

Matviyenko started her political career in Leningrad, which she first visited as a teenager on a trip from medical school. She "fell in love with the city," according to her official biography.

After graduating from the city's Chemical Pharmaceutical Institute, Matviyenko took the typical career route of Komsomol and Communist Party posts, then worked in various jobs in the St. Petersburg city administration.

Most famously, a story had it that Matviyenko once intervened to save the Angleterre hotel from demolition, after a group of students had demanded the hotel be kept up as a memorial to Sergei Yesenin, the famous poet who committed suicide in one of the rooms.

It was in 1989, at the height of perestroika, that Matviyenko got her break in national politics, being elected as a deputy to the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet.

In 1991, she joined the new Foreign Ministry team of Yevgeny Primakov, and served as ambassador to Malta and Greece. When Primakov was appointed prime minister during the 1998 financial crisis, he recalled Matviyenko to Moscow and appointed her deputy prime minister with responsibility for social issues.

She was tasked with reducing the huge backlog of unpaid salaries, which in 1999 had reached 77 billion rubles. By 2002, the figure had fallen to 29.9 billion rubles ($1 billion), according to the State Statistics Committee.

During a strike by schoolteachers from the Irkutsk region this spring, protesting months of unpaid wages, officials involved in negotiating a solution with Matviyenko say she did all she could to fix the problem.

"It was her achievement to make the work of the tripartite commission effective," said Oleg Sokolov, the head of the labor department of the Independent Trade Union confederation. "She was a good coordinator who was quick to resolve the hottest issues in the regions. As a social manager she was effective. But I don't know about her being a governor."

Yury Korgunyuk, an expert at the Indem think tank, doubted that Matviyenko would be able to make a big impact as the city's governor.

"I have doubts that she will be able to cope with such a big economy," he said. "She has never run a city. She has experience in social issues, but the city would be a big challenge for her. The city is in a bad way. I would not expect too many differences for St. Petersburgers if she comes to power."