Putin puts right-wing governor on ice

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It was unbelievable, but at the world ice hockey championships currently taking place in St Petersburg, two small countries, Latvia and Belarus, pushed the once-mighty Russians out of the contest before they knew what had hit them.

To Vladimir Yakovlev, the city governor who was hoping to make political capital out of the games, the defeat of the Russian sporting Goliath must have seemed like an omen. Although he remains the strong favourite to win local elections today, a liberal "David" is creeping up behind him.

In the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin seems to have sensed that there might be a political upset in his home city. Once a bitter rival of the governor, who has allowed St Petersburg to become Russia's capital of crime, in recent weeks Mr Putin had given Mr Yakovlev his support. Now he is blowing cool again.

Mr Putin and Mr Yakovlev worked in the early 1990s as deputies to the late Anatoly Sobchak, the liberal mayor who dropped the city's Communist name of Leningrad and tried to restore its Tsarist-era glory. These schemes caused working-class discontent, and in 1996 Mr Yakovlev ran against his boss and won. Mr Putin publicly called the new governor a "Judas".

Remaining loyal to Mr Sobchak, Mr Putin went off to develop his career in Moscow. During Mr Yakovlef's four years in office, the former imperial capital has become notorious for gangland crime and contract killings. The defeated Mr Sobchak, an ally of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, found himself accused of corruption, and had to go into exile in Paris for a time.

He died of a heart attack in February and was buried in St Petersburg. His widow forbade Governor Yakovlev to attend the funeral. Supporters of Mr Sobchak vowed to find a strong candidate to beat the man who had ousted him.

Mr Putin not only attended the funeral, but supported the efforts to defeat Mr Yakovlev. He encouraged the federal social affairs minister, Valentina Matviyenko, to run for the governorship on an anti-corruption platform.

Enter Boris Berezovsky, the leading member of the "oligarchs", or crony capitalists, who surrounded former President Yeltsin. No sooner had Mr Berezovsky received Mr Yakovlev in Moscow and declared his support for him than Mr Putin performed a U-turn. He told Ms Matviyenko to drop out of the race, apparently leaving the governor in an unbeatable position. Mr Putin, then still acting president, looked too weak to resist the oligarchs, despite his KGB background.

The St Petersburg reformers did not give up. This month they made Russian history by holding unofficial "primary elections" to find a single candidate. They chose Igor Artemyev of the liberal Yabloko Party. So rare and impressive was this unity among Russian democrats, that the pundits started to say Mr Artemyev might have a chance, at least to push Mr Yakovlev into a second round of voting.

Even the St Petersburg branch of the pro-Putin Unity Party said on Friday it would urge its members to vote for Mr Artemyev.

Were the president's supporters, upset by his U-turn in favour of the governor, rebelling against him? It is more likely, given that Unity is controlled by the Kremlin, that Mr Putin himself had switched support to the liberal candidate.

Whether Mr Putin is not yet fully his own man, or simply a pragmatist with a keen sense of the way the political wind is blowing, one thing is clear.

If the voters choose Governor Yakovlev, they will be accepting the violent and depressing status quo. If they prefer Mr Artemyev, they will be sending a message to the Kremlin that they want reform and an end to crime in the country.

Mr Yakovlev had hoped that the victory of the Russian team at the ice hockey championships would coincide with his own triumphant re-election. Now both trophies may be won by outsiders.