You might call Valentina Matviyenko the Nancy Pelosi of Russia. As current Speaker of the Federation Council, she holds the third most powerful position in Russian politics, led only by Vladimir Putin and his protégé, Dmitry Medvedev. And she is setting out to increase her political impact.
In April of this year Matviyenko, former governor of St. Petersburg, called for a new rubric of the Federation Council’s duties, saying that the duties of the Council must be “optimized,” its “role heightened in the perfection of actions taken by the Upper House of the Russian Parliament.” Since being appointed Chairman of the Council in September of 2011, Matviyenko has had time to realize that not all with the Russian political authorities runs smoothly. The centralization of the Council’s powers would smooth out the kinks, according to Matviyenko.
The rubric also includes the disassociation of all Council members from any political party. Matviyenko proposed that she would even remove herself from the United Russia party if the depoliticization of the Council members were made official. However, depolitization in the strict sense of the word seems highly unlikely, as most of the members of the Council are indebted to Putin for appointing them. Matviyenko is no exception. So why the declaration of depolitization in a political climate where decisions are still heavily Putin-ized?
The first female governor of St. Petersburg, who built her political roots as an active leader of the Komsomol in the 70’s and 80’s, owes much of her more recent success to Mr. Putin. Matviyenko served as First Secretary of the Krasnogvardeysky District of St. Petersburg from 1984 to 1986, Russian ambassador to Malta and Greece in the 1990’s, and was Deputy Prime Minister of Russia for Welfare in 2003. In 2000 she was Putin’s darling for the St. Petersburg gubernatorial race against Vladimir Yakovlev, but he forced her to back out of the race upon learning that Yakovlev, a personal enemy of Mr. Putin, was a shoe-in for the win. Mr. Putin couldn’t afford to appoint a loser, and St. Petersburg was rallied around Yakovlev: a drunk and a crook, but a man who had done a lot for their city. At that time, according to a New York Times article from 2000, citizens of St. Petersburg considered Matviyenko “a wooden, Communist youth type of person,” not ready for the “mafia structure” of the city, which would “squash her in no time.”
In 2003 Putin removed Yakovlev from his position as governor before the expiration of his term in 2004 and appointed him to the presidential administration, which left the seat of governor wide open for Ms. Matviyenko. Putin’s backing of Matviyenko made the campaign a highly predictable one and encouraged nothing but indifference on the part of Russian voters. Through the duration of her campaign, the Kremlin blocked several local news channels because of their opposition to United Russia. St. Petersburg news channels focused primarily on Matviyenko and hardly afforded airtime to any of her opponents.
Putin’s endorsement of Matviyenko was so blatant that looking back on his actions now seems humorous. At a televised conference, Matviyenko declared the importance of funding for continuing the reconstruction of St. Petersburg after its 300th anniversary. During the meeting, Putin publicly telephoned the director of the federal budget and then told Matviyenko not to worry, the funding would be there.
The 2003 elections for governor of St. Petersburg were representative of a plague of indifference infecting Russian politics. Danil A. Kotsyubinsky, a political journalist in Moscow, said the low voter turnout for the 2003 election was “symptomatic of the crisis of ‘managed democracy’ Putin is trying to implement.” He added, “It’s a little regional model of a huge national crisis.”
Russians didn’t bother to go to the polls because many were tired of empty promises from candidates. Interestingly enough, Matviyenko herself has also expressed disdain for such empty promises. In an interview with Steven Lee Meyers for the International Harold Tribune in December of 2006, she confessed that her campaign in 2003 was “the most difficult point in my life,” and that she deplored the “million promises” made by her opponent. She stressed that Russia should not elect its executive leaders because Russians weren’t ready for an electoral democracy: “The mentality of the Russian demands a lord, a czar, a president.” That czar, Putin, endowed Matviyenko with all of her political power, obliging her to abide by all of his empty promises.
In 2008 Matviyenko was reappointed governor by Putin, which supplied further evidence to the fact that Putin was controlling all of electoral politics. Matviyenko found a way to impose a positive spin on this strain of stalled democracy. As she explained to Meyers in 2006, “people do not want any more revolutions. People want the quiet development of the country, stable development, without shake-ups. They would like to see a president who can guarantee the succession of power.”
The succession of power back to Putin from Putin’s boy scout, Medvedev, in May of 2012 was anything but a shake-up. Even in the midst of a testy political climate where anti-Putin protests are occurring at an unprecedented level, the transfer of executive power and reformation of the presidential administration occurred without a violent upheaval. Ms. Matviyenko was the only candidate for Speaker of the Council, and out of 141 senators, 140 voted for her and 1 abstained.
Currently, Matviyenko, collectively with all members of the Federation Council, is working on passing a law called, “The Formation of the Federation Council of the Russian Federation,” (a title which sounds only slightly less repetitive in Russian…) which sets out to establish a new rubric for the Council’s responsibilities and formation. The new rubric is a project started by the members of the Council to grant themselves political power that rivals the State Duma. According to the official Council website, the project involved 90 thousand Russian citizens in a one-month long discussion and democratic exchange of ideas as well as a survey asking which of the project’s proposals they supported.
Matviyenko tweeted about the proposal on May 1st: “The legislative role of the Federation Council will grow, and the name, ‘Senate’ will possibly become official.” It seems she is trying to democratize the law-making bodies of Russia with the name, “Senate,” and the talk of engaging the public in a discussion of the Federation Council’s role. However, is the centralization of the Council’s powers really such a great idea? They are a body of regional politicians with a hodge podge of local interests. How does a country like Russia, with its adolescent democracy, go about combining local interests and federal power?
It is easy to believe that Matviyenko is a Putin puppet, but is that all she is? With such an ornate political past, I hesitate to think that she is just a United Russia party mascot. What does her presence on twitter mean about all of this, too? When I followed her, her account followed me right back. Is that because she’s actually engaging in a conversation with the public? Or is it because she wants to keep a tight leash on her nay-sayers?
·  http://www.nytimes.com/2000/04/07/world/foe-s-strength-forces-putin-into-a-humbling-reversal.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm
·  http://www.nytimes.com/2003/09/30/world/russian-voter-disillusionment-seen-in-st-petersburg-runoff.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm