. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

St. Petersburg Electoral Deja Vu

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On my way to work on Tuesday, I saw a long line of cars and buses near St. Isaac's Square stuck in a traffic jam, waiting for a few black cars and their police escort to pass by. Traffic jams are nothing new in St. Petersburg, and I would have dismissed it as a stereotypical snapshot of today's city if I hadn't heard presidential envoy Valentina Matviyenko announce her decision to run for governor just a few minutes before.

When Leonid Brezhnev was at the top of the political pile in the Soviet Union, there was a popular phrase summing up his ubiquity that translates roughly as "Turn on even an iron and Brezhnev's face will appear on it." The English equivalent, in the case of Matviyenko, would be: "She would turn up at the opening of an envelope."

It occurred to me that, given Matviyenko's penchant for publicity, the number of her potential voters stuck in traffic, waiting for her cavalcade to pass, will increase drastically over the next three months. And events suggest that it is not only the city's roads that are going to be blocked.

It appears that most of St. Petersburg's media outlets are going to come under increasing pressure. Over the past few weeks, many outlets have already been brought to heel by the Kremlin to make sure that 3.5 million potential voters won't be able to read articles or watch TV footage showing President Vladimir Putin's lapdog in a bad light.

Matviyenko's Moscow-backed campaign team could probably accuse me of bias given the lack of any mention so far of City Hall gubernatorial candidate Anna Markova, who announced that she would run for governor on June 11. But, given that Markova has disappeared from public view since then, what can I say about her -- good or bad?

Maybe Markova is running scared of the steamroller with which anonymous illwishers threatened her (although she said it was a "friendly threat," whatever one of those is). Maybe she is too busy with her day job as deputy governor in charge of resolving emergency situations in the city. In any case, I haven't seen Markova using her so-called administrative resources for campaign purposes as Matviyenko is doing. St. Petersburg's gubernatorial election law states that candidates employed in the upper echelons of federal or local government must resign for the duration of their election campaign.

Of course, despite both declaring their intention to run, neither Matviyenko nor Markova has yet been registered as a candidate. This is why the numerous recent examples of Matviyenko using her administrative resources can only be the basis for discussing morality in political life, and no more.

Discussions of that nature have a precedent in St. Petersburg electoral history. In 1996, then Mayor Anatoly Sobchak was running against his former deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev. Just as Matviyenko is doing at the moment, Sobchak monopolized the local media by introducing censorship and banning papers from running articles carrying even so much as a mention of other candidates. It was a fatal mistake -- Sobchak lost.

In 1996, four journalists were fired from the local daily Nevskoye Vremya by editor Alla Manilova for revealing the censorship that had been introduced at the paper by Sobchak's campaign team. I am still proud to have been one of that quartet.

Seven years later, it's sad for me to see Daniil Kotsubinsky and Pyotr Godlevsky, journalists at local channel Peterburg Television, being taken off the air and put in such a difficult position that they have been forced to consider quitting.

Maybe I would feel a bit different if I hadn't heard a few days ago that Manilova -- who is still editing Nevskoye Vremya -- is being headhunted to be Matviyenko's image maker for the campaign and may be appointed head of City Hall's media committee if the presidential envoy is elected. If this turns out to be the case, anyone trying to maintain a publicly objective stance in St. Petersburg may face serious problems come October.

Vladimir Kovalev is a Staff Writer with The St. Petersburg Times.