Tuesday 28 March 2017

Meet Valentina, the chemist who could clean up the Kremlin

Mary Dejevsky in St Petersburg

RUSSIA'S next presidential election is not until 2012, but speculation is already rife about whether Dmitry Medvedev will try for a second term or whether his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, will want to reclaim his old job.

The one thing almost everyone can agree on is that they will not stand against each other. But there might just be a third way, and that could give Russia its very own Margaret Thatcher or Angela Merkel.

Even to mention the possibility risks crushing Valentina Matviyenko's prospects well before nominations open. But if anyone can do it, the 61-year-old governor of St Petersburg may be the one. In the past seven years, during which she has essentially been the city's chief executive, St Petersburg has changed for the better.

Vast investment by the central government improved the city's dilapidated fabric in time for the 300th anniversary in 2003. But the bigger changes have happened since, with huge new housing and commercial building projects and, most obviously, a transformation of the public mood. For the first time in my more than 30 years of visiting, people on the streets of St Petersburg seem confident and content with themselves.

At a weekend question-and-answer session the governor seemed more confident, less Soviet and more modern than five years ago -- a new hairdo, weight loss, new spontaneity, and above all a new commanding air. Significant, too, may be how her career -- from local Communist Youth leader to member of Mikhail Gorbachev's first delegates' conference to diplomat to deputy minister to governor of the city that styles itself Russia's second capital -- is a near-ideal reflection of her country's experience.

And the third striking aspect is how closely Ms Matviyenko's profile -- an outsider (born and brought up in Ukraine), a natural scientist (a chemist), and with phenomenal power of recall -- resembles those two other ground-breaking female leaders, Thatcher and Merkel.

Russia has never been keen on female politicians; even in Soviet days, when women drove tractors and the Communist Party boasted about equal rights, their presence was more token than substantial.

Ms Matviyenko acknowledges the problem, cheerfully relating how her opponents festooned the city's streets with banners proclaiming 'Being governor is no job for a woman' before she was convincingly elected. But, she says, she opposes Scandinavian-style quotas and says women will have to learn to be more competitive.

Her detailed answers started with her support -- or not -- for the Norman Foster tower that the Russian gas giant, Gazprom, wants to build in her city. On balance, she seemed to support it, but not in a dogmatic way that would prevent compromise with protest groups.

She spoke at some length about demography; the city's birth rate has risen rapidly in the past two years after falling every year since 1990, and families are moving there from many other parts of Russia, including Moscow, for the culture and quality of life. Tourism to St Petersburg has more than doubled to five million visitors a year since she took over.

She also seemed to be one of very few Russian politicians actively tackling corruption. All council meetings are now shown live on the internet as are auctions for building land. The price of land, she gleefully recounted, rose more than tenfold when auctions started to be held in public, showing just how much the public purse had lost to corrupt middlemen. There is a hotline for citizens to complain anonymously about bribe-takers and advertisements to make clear that bribe-givers, as well as bribe-takers, are breaking the law.

Aside from the administrative competence the governor oozes, and her boundless enthusiasm for her adopted city, Ms Matviyenko has something else going for her. She was spotted and promoted by none other than former president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin. It was he who gave her the big break -- the transfer to St Petersburg. So if he is in two minds about returning to the Kremlin himself and hesitant to back Medvedev for a second term, Ms Matviyenko's might be the new face of Russia. (© Independent News Service)

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