Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hotbed of unhappiness

Leningrad/St. Petersburg was a center of political dissent 20+ years ago. One of the exports was a guy named Putin. It seems that St. Petersburg is not so enamored with its "favorite son" anymore.

Putin’s hometown turns against him
No city is more closely associated with Vladimir Putin’s rule than St. Petersburg. The Russian Prime Minister grew up in what was then Leningrad, and attended KGB school here. During his 12 years in power, Mr. Putin’s governments have poured billions into restoring the palaces, canals and bridges of this graceful former capital of the Russian empire.

But being showered with favouritism is no longer enough. The city that Mr. Putin says he “loves” is now a centre of the growing opposition to his rule.

According to the official – and hotly disputed – results of the country’s Dec. 4 parliamentary election, Mr. Putin’s United Russia party took 35 per cent of the vote in St. Petersburg, one the lowest levels of support in the country. It represented a rebuke for Mr. Putin, who took nearly three-quarters of the vote here when he last ran for president in 2004…

President Dmitry Medvedev is a St. Petersburg native too, as are most of Mr. Putin’s inner circle of advisers and cabinet ministers. Russians elsewhere grumble about the powerful “St. Petersburg clan” and this city’s disproportionate political and economic influence over the rest of the country.

But Sergei Shelin, one of the city’s best-known journalists, said St. Petersburgers no longer see Mr. Putin as one of their own. “Ten years ago, it mattered that Putin was from St. Petersburg. But the St. Petersburg clan and St. Petersburg, the city, are different things. People don’t see themselves as part of this clan. … If Putin actually gets the real information through all his filters, it must personally bother him that his hometown doesn’t love him any more.”

Part of the reason St. Petersburg – Russia’s most open and Westernized city – has turned on Mr. Putin is that he has proven to be anything but the reformer many had hoped he was. Before he was unexpectedly anointed Boris Yeltsin’s successor, Mr. Putin served a deputy to the liberal governor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak. Many here expected Mr. Putin would follow Mr. Sobchak’s liberal course once he got to the Kremlin.

Instead, Mr. Putin has taken Russia several strides back toward its Soviet past, with both the media and the officially registered opposition parties being brought under tight Kremlin control.

Last week, Mr. Sobchak’s daughter, Ksenia, joined the opposition protests in Moscow. “I can no longer just silently watch what is happening in my country,” the 30-year-old socialite, who has known Mr. Putin since she was a young girl, wrote on her Twitter account. “The point of no return has been passed.”

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