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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Down Two Strikes in Risky Game

In the Soviet era, St. Petersburg was known as the cradle of the Revolution. More recently, the city has given us Russia's second president, Vladimir Putin, along with the many local officials who rode his coattails into top jobs in Moscow. This lends symbolic significance to everything that happens in the northern capital.

Governor Vladimir Yakovlev's resignation right after the city's 300th anniversary celebrations, necessitating a special election, was doubly symbolic. It represents revenge for the sins of the past, and a test of the effectiveness of Putin's model of "managed democracy."

During the last gubernatorial race in 2000, Putin, who served with Yakovlev under former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, withdrew support for his candidate, Valentina Matviyenko, when it became clear that she stood no chance of winning. It might have appeared that Putin had reached a satisfactory compromise with the outwardly loyal Yakovlev. Not quite.

The first to lay into Yakovlev and his cronies was Viktor Cherkesov, Matviyenko's predecessor as presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District, and formerly St. Petersburg's top chekist. On the eve of the city's 300th anniversary celebrations, when enough compromising material had apparently been gathered on Yakovlev, Matviyenko took over Cherkesov's post. On Tuesday, she announced her candidacy for the post of governor, undoubtedly with the Kremlin's backing.

By throwing Matviyenko's name in the ring for a second time, the Kremlin has basically admitted that it wasn't leaning lightly on Yakovlev back in 2000. Putin had wanted to get rid of him, and he'd failed. Without arranging for a special election, he would not have got his way this time around, either.

Yet it would seem that the Kremlin has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Even if Matviyenko prevails at the polls, her tenure as governor will always carry the taint of behind-the-scenes deal-making. Her defeat -- which is entirely possible -- would be interpreted as a crushing blow for the Kremlin.

All the maneuvering in St. Petersburg smacks of a particularly cynical brand of horse-trading for top government posts. Blackmail and vote-rigging are passed off as normal practice in Moscow's dealings with regional leaders. This no longer surprises anyone after the Yevgeny Nazdratenko saga. The present situation in St. Petersburg simply confirms that it has become the norm.

This will be the third election in St. Petersburg not held on schedule. In 1996, the election was postponed until May in a bid to help incumbent Sobchak by putting space between the gubernatorial and presidential elections. Sobchak lost anyway. In 1999, the vote was originally timed to coincide with the State Duma election, but was called off at the last minute to spite Yakovlev. He won handily. And now the governor has resigned before his term was out. At this point, the Kremlin has failed twice to ensure victory for its chosen candidate. Three strikes and you're out, as they say.

It is significant that in a region with extremely strong democratic traditions that has given us dozens of outstanding politicians, the Kremlin's choice is now the only viable candidate to become governor. The popular Irina Khakamada, who represents the city in the Duma, announced earlier that if Matviyenko were to run, the political right would be in her corner. Another possible candidate from the right, Andrei Likhachyov of Lenenergo, also announced that he would not run. Matviyenko has already collected the endorsements of Vadim Tyulpanov, speaker of the city's Legislative Assembly, and Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov.

No one seems willing to contest the election without the Kremlin's blessing. Only Deputy Governor Anna Markova has announced her intention to run. State Duma Deputy Oksana Dmitriyeva, a popular figure in the city, is also considering a bid. It would seem that we're about to witness a rare event in Russian politics: an all-female election.

The timing of the election is everything. On the one hand, the Kremlin's strategy leaves one of Russia's key regions without a leader on the eve of the State Duma election. On the other hand, Yakovlev's departure was calculated to ensure that the gubernatorial election could not legally coincide with the messy and unpredictable Duma vote, a scenario that posed too great a risk for the Kremlin.

The gubernatorial election will probably be scheduled for September; the final date will be determined by the Legislative Assembly on Monday. Thus the election could be the opening act of the first full election cycle on Putin's watch. It will set the tone for the parliamentary and presidential elections to follow.

St. Petersburg is a city of ancient and distinctive traditions, such as its propensity for steam-rolling establishment candidates, even when no one is running against them. Back in 1989, the entire communist leadership of the city went down in flames. If the pressure from Moscow on St. Petersburg voters is too blatant, it could have the opposite effect. And in that case, the popularity of "local boy" Putin wouldn't count for beans. The stakes today are much higher than they were four years ago. The Kremlin is playing a very risky game. We'll soon find out if Putin knows how to limit his losses.

Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.