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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Auntie Valya' Awaiting Orders

Itar-TassMatviyenko enjoying a skating race on May 20, a day after the FSB made arrests in a purported assassination plot.
ST. PETERSBURG -- Valentina Matviyenko has been called an iron lady, an undemocratic ruler and the woman behind a business boom in the northern capital. But on the streets of St. Petersburg, she is more commonly known as Auntie Valya.

The nickname refers to a much-loved presenter on "Spokoinoi Nochi, Malyshi," or "Good Night, Kids," a television program that has sent children off to bed since 1964.

The nickname hints at Matviyenko's Soviet roots. She entered politics as a Komsomol youth leader in the 1970s and has managed to remain close to the nexus of political power as a diplomat, minister, presidential envoy and now St. Petersburg governor.

"It is a light reminder that we know what she was before," said Anna Petrova, 34, a translator, who did not vote for Matviyenko.

Opponents say Matviyenko, with the Kremlin's approval, has secured power in St. Petersburg as ruthlessly as President Vladimir Putin has across the country. Now some people speculate that she is a prime candidate to succeed Putin next year.

Matviyenko has repeatedly denied presidential aspirations, but in a political system as transparent as the Neva River, that means little. Putin would just have to give the order.

"I've answered that question more than once," Matviyenko said in an interview in Smolny, the heart of political power in St. Petersburg. "I am completely satisfied with what I do now. I have no plans to take part in the election."

She added: "Personally, I think I know who will be president. I think I am not mistaken [but] ... I don't have the right to say it out loud. We don't have long to wait. Let's be patient and wait until March 2008."

Political analysts believe Matviyenko has no chance of running in her own right but could run as a stopgap candidate while Putin waits on the sidelines for a possible return to the Kremlin in 2012. The Constitution bars a third consecutive term.

Valentina Ivanovna Matviyenko

Born: April 7, 1949

Place of Birth: Shepetivka, Ukraine

Education: Leningrad Institute of Chemistry and Pharmaceutics, 1972; Diplomatic Academy, Foreign Ministry, 1990

Advantages: Close to Vladimir Putin, reputation as effective bureaucrat, good relations with foreign investors, strong character.

Disadvantages: Voters may be wary about a female president, unwillingness to listen to others, no real power base outside St. Petersburg, too reliant on Putin.

Notable Quotes: "I want to sincerely say I have no ambitions. I do not have a mania of greatness." Commenting on her presidential aspirations in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio in October.

"More and more Russians say that they are ready to support women in top posts. Hypothetically, is Russia ready to choose a female president in 2008? I think not yet." Interview with The Moscow Times in September.

"Forgive us who hold power, forgive us, your colleagues who were unable to protect you. It is terrible that it has become normal to kill priests, journalists and now deputies." At the funeral of State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova, November 1998, as quoted in The Baltimore Sun.

"She is not ambitious and is 100 percent oriented toward Vladimir Putin," said Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center.

One of the few women in the upper ranks of the country's politics, Matviyenko, 58, encapsulates a visual style that mixes Soviet bombast and Las Vegas lacquer. The style, whose other notable follower is State Duma Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska, combines femininity and power dressing to produce the impression of a formidable Soviet bureaucrat.

Soviet Path to Power

In the tough world of politics, Matviyenko is a rarity as she is a survivor.

Born in 1949 in Shepetivka, in western Ukraine, Matviyenko won a place at the Leningrad Institute of Chemistry and Pharmaceutics, and became a Komsomol leader upon graduating in 1972. She worked her way up the ranks to head a Komsomol branch in the Leningrad region before moving over to the Communist Party, where she rose to the position of first secretary of the region before assuming the same position in Leningrad itself.

Andrei Konstantinov, who first met Matviyenko as a boy in the Komsomol, described her as "very energetic" -- both then and now.

"She differed from the other bureaucrats, who were slow. She ran and ran around. ... She goes forward like a train," said Konstantinov, an author and journalist who heads the Agency for Journalistic Investigations in St. Petersburg.

Konstantinov said he backed what Matviyenko has done in St. Petersburg overall but admitted that she tended to refuse to bend in discussions.

Matviyenko followed the traditional path of a Communist bureaucrat. After serving in Leningrad for the first half of the 1980s, she was elected deputy of the Supreme Soviet, where she headed the committee on women, family and children affairs.

While a deputy, Matviyenko enrolled in the Foreign Ministry's Diplomatic Academy and in 1991 was appointed ambassador to Malta. She spent most of the next seven years as an ambassador, first to Malta and then to Greece.

Then-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, her former boss at the Foreign Ministry, called Matviyenko back to Moscow in 1998 to oversee social issues as a deputy prime minister. She served under four prime ministers -- Primakov, Sergei Stepashin, Putin and Mikhail Kasyanov.

In March 2003, she resigned to become presidential envoy to the Northwest Federal District. She was elected governor a scant six months later.

Rigid Reputation

In St. Petersburg, Matviyenko has a reputation as a politician who does not tolerate dissent. Opposition politicians have a long list of grievances since she came to power in an election that they say was undemocratic and biased in the first place. The vote was called after Governor Vladimir Yakovlev abruptly resigned to take a Putin appointment.

"She has one principle: 'My orders should not be discussed.' She cannot stand any opposition," said Boris Vishnevsky, a senior Yabloko member and longtime opponent of Matviyenko who has known her since the 1970s.

"She does not pay any attention to the opinions of others." Vishnevsky said. "Anyone who criticizes her is either an enemy or, in the best case, a provocateur."

Her sins, as cited by Vishnevsky, sound familiar to anyone who has followed national politics under Putin. She is accused of using administrative resources as presidential envoy to win the 2003 election and then neutering the opposition, stripping the city legislature of its powers, and controlling local television. Her only child, Sergei, was named vice president of St. Petersburg Bank shortly after she was appointed envoy. The bank is used by the city government. Sergei Matviyenko now also holds the title of vice president of state bank VTB.

Matviyenko, whom Putin appointed for another term as governor in December, has turned local television into an analog of the state national channels, which pander to those in power, Vishnevsky said. Large protests have been banned or shipped to the city outskirts. When they do take place, they are squashed, as with the violent beating of protesters during a Dissenters' March in April, he said.

Matviyenko's supporters were just as energetic in their praise for her time in St. Petersburg. "It has been a colossal jump forward," said Vatanyar Yagya, a United Russia city deputy who proposed her reappointment as governor.

She has attracted major international companies, including General Motors, Suzuki, Nissan and Mitsubishi, and tripled the city budget, he said.

"Honestly, I don't know what I could criticize her for," he said.

Her relationship with Putin appears to have played a big role in her successes. Analysts said it was Putin's support that has enabled her to bring the companies to the city.

Although Matviyenko's name doesn't even surface in national surveys of the country's most popular leaders, she has won admiration in St. Petersburg. When reports surfaced in September that she would be offered a Cabinet post, 70 percent of residents opposed any move, according to a survey by sociologist Roman Mogilevsky, Interfax reported. Mogilevsky works closely with St. Petersburg City Hall, the report said.

A Skillful Talker

Matviyenko deals with journalists skillfully, spicing her conversation with statistics and, like many politicians, occasionally answering the questions she chooses rather than the ones she is asked.

When asked about threats to historical buildings, she said money for restoration had increased by 600 percent under her watch and promised to protect the city center. "Tourism is for us like oil is for Tyumen, so we have to keep the historical legacy for tourists," she said.

She brushed off complaints about a controversial proposed 300-meter tower funded by the city and Gazprom.

Matviyenko seemed pleased when asked about being called an iron lady, a la Margaret Thatcher. Her comment on a Federal Security Service claim earlier this year to have foiled an assassination plot against her was also worthy of the former British prime minister. "Believe me, not a single muscle moved when I heard about it," she said. "I didn't change my style, my schedule one bit."

Matviyenko had a brush with death in 1999 when a van she was riding in overturned after colliding with a small truck that had turned into its path. A deputy Penza governor and another person in the van died. Matviyenko suffered a torn knee ligament and a minor head injury.

Like many possible Kremlin-backed candidates, Matviyenko is not shy about showing her loyalty to Putin.

"I think he is needed for at least one more term, but I have respect for his position that he doesn't want to change the Constitution," she said.

She sidestepped another question on whether she would like to become president. "I really love this city and I'm ready to devote my life to the city," she said. "For me, it is very important that the aim that I have set, to turn St. Petersburg into a city with a European standard of life, is realized."

Matviyenko, however, can move with the political winds. Just as Putin once said he would not ditch gubernatorial elections, Matviyenko once said she would not be part of United Russia's party list in elections. She now tops the St. Petersburg list for State Duma elections in December.

Seven years ago, Matviyenko planned to run for St. Petersburg governor in a campaign backed by the Kremlin. But with Putin in his first term and gubernatorial elections still in place, Matviyenko's chances of winning looked unlikely. Her popularity rating was less than 20 percent. Shortly after vowing to push ahead with the bid, she said Putin had asked her to withdraw, and she did.

Her loyalty to Putin, said Vishnevsky, of Yabloko, comes from her Soviet days. She is from that school of thought where "your bosses' decisions are never discussed. She obeys," he said.

If Putin asks her for another favor, she is unlikely to refuse.

Editor's note: This is the eighth in a series of profiles of possible presidential candidates. Previous profiles can be read on The Moscow Times web site,