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Snow, trash, and ‘influential people’ St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov is under more pressure than ever before. Is his departure imminent?
For St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov, 2022 didn’t get off to a good start. The politician, who has faced near-constant criticism for his poor handling of the coronavirus epidemic, has now proven inept at resolving issues related to snow and garbage removal. What’s more, it seems as though local residents aren’t the only ones getting fed up with Beglov — St. Petersburg’s elites are losing patience with him, too. With Alexander Beglov under more pressure than ever, Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev looks into whether his departure is imminent and who might take up his post.
On the evening of February 5, St. Petersburg Governor Alexander Beglov gathered together all of the city’s municipal services officials and gave them another dressing down over the snow and garbage piled up in the streets.
“Beglov has never been seen like this. It was very close to hysterics. And this is despite the fact that people from Beglov’s entourage work in the [municipal services] bloc,” a source close to the city administration told Meduza.
Since mid-January, the St. Petersburg administration has been struggling to resolve a number of problems: the city’s streets are buried in snow and its dumpsters are overflowing. Even media outlets that are typically loyal to the municipal authorities have started criticizing them openly. Leningrad’s Sergey Shnurov has released not one but two music videos about the crisis — both of which went viral immediately, racking up more than four million views each.
Nevertheless, the situation is showing no signs of improvement. The failure to clear snow and ice has already led to one death: on February 8, a 29-year-old janitor was killed by a block of ice that fell from a roof. That same day, law enforcement carried out raids on more than 60 municipal services, roadworks, and contractors’ offices. In the end, prosecutors opened a criminal case for the “embezzlement of funds by organizations involved in the city’s snow and ice cleanup.”
However, a Meduza source close to the city administration thinks that Beglov’s concerns have little to do with the cleanup situation. According to the source, the governor is actually on edge because Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t meet with him during a recent visit to St. Petersburg. In turn, a source close to the domestic policy bloc of Putin’s Executive Office (the Presidential Administration or AP) told Meduza that this meeting would have been a “sign of the president’s complete support” for Beglov — something the governor was really counting on.
Beglov has blamed the cleanup issues on “semi-criminal structures” that the authorities have allegedly begun to fight. He also claimed that the criticism levelled against him was “planned” and commissioned by “influential people.” When Meduza inquired as to who Beglov was referring to, the governor’s office didn’t respond.
At the same time, two Meduza sources close to Putin’s administration and another source in the office of the presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District explained that the governor has in fact clashed with key political and business players in St. Petersburg. According to these sources, this includes Kremlin-linked catering mogul Evgeny Prigozhin, the Kovalchuk brothers, the Rotenberg brothers, and Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko. What’s more, some of these figures supported Beglov up until recently — as did the Kremlin, which did everything possible to ensure that this unpopular official was elected governor in 2019.
‘He doesn’t remember the good things’
Alexander Beglov has long been headed towards an open conflict with St. Petersburg’s elites. “It all started soon after Beglov was appointed acting governor [in the fall of 2018]. Initially, Evgeny Prigozhin set up [his election] campaign — he had his own pool of political strategists. Even then, the foundations of the governor’s ridiculous image were being laid,” said Meduza’s source close to the presidential envoy to the Northwestern Federal District.
According to the source, officials from Putin’s administration, as well as St. Petersburg’s Vice-Governor Lyubov Sovershaeva (who is close to the Kovalchuk brothers) intervened in the floundering campaign. At the time, the source said, Beglov was considered the “Kovalchuks’ man.”
An experienced political strategist and official, deputy head of the State Council administration Boris Rapoport, undertook to relaunch Beglov’s campaign. The well-known political strategy company IMA-Consulting (a firm that signs multi-million-dollar contracts with the Moscow government every year) was put in charge of his PR. And, just to be safe, Lyubov Sovershaeva recommended some other experienced political strategists to Beglov.
As a result, Beglov won the election in September 2019. Although, as a source in Putin’s Executive Office admitted to Meduza, the real results of the vote remained a mystery to him: “In St. Petersburg there are specific methods for counting votes.” Independent monitors did in fact record an array of violations during the 2019 elections — even the Central Election Commission criticized local election officials based on the voting results.
A Meduza source with connections to Beglov’s campaign said that after the election, “the governor rewarded the undeserving and punished the innocent.” For example, Lyubov Sovershaeva transferred to a job at the presidential envoy’s office rather quickly: according to the source, she was “squeezed out” by Beglov himself. “He didn’t feel any gratitude towards those who helped him win,” added the source from the envoy’s office.
“He doesn’t remember the good things, he’s also quick to forget the commitments he’s made. He considers himself indebted to only one person — Vladimir Putin,” confirmed Meduza’s source close to the AP.
In his opinion, this is the reason why Beglov’s allies began to distance themselves from him and, later, came into confrontation with the governor. Along these lines, Znak.com reported that Evgeny Prigozhin commissioned Sergey Shnurov’s viral music videos about St. Petersburg’s cleanup crisis. In turn, Prigozhin denied that there was any tension between him and the governor, insisting that he hadn’t commissioned an information campaign — he then filed a defamation suit against Znak.com.
However, Meduza’s sources said that the rumors about a standoff between Prigozhin and the governor are not entirely unfounded. For example, companies linked to Prigozhin were supposed to be involved in the construction of the so-called “judicial quarter” in St. Petersburg. However, during Beglov’s election campaign, it became known that the site would be turned into a park.
“This was a strong point in Beglov’s campaign, the city has a problem with modern parks. But Prigozhin also had to get his money back somehow. This could have been done through the reclamation of islands and the construction of housing on them. In 2018, Smolny said no to Evgeny Prigozhin’s structures [regarding] reclamation, but they could have returned to this topic. However, in 2021, Smolny, meaning Beglov, said no once again,” explained Meduza’s source close to Putin’s administration.
The source added that Prigozhin and the city’s leadership were also divided on other issues — such as the supply of school meals (catering is one of the many businesses Prigozhin dabbles in, which earned him the nickname “Putin’s chef”).
At the beginning of the year, BBC News Russian reported that Vladimir Putin had called off the plan to build a park and ordered the completion of the judicial quarter on the site. However, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov assured that both the judicial quarter and the park would be built. “Evgeny Prigozhin got his [money] back, but not with Beglov’s help,” maintained Meduza’s source close to the AP.
According to the source in the presidential envoy’s office, the Kovalchuk brothers are also dissatisfied with Beglov, because they expected to be more actively involved in the city’s garbage reform. Instead, the city administration established the Nevsky Ecological Operation — a company that took over all municipal waste operations, from transport and sorting, to disposal and recycling. “They [the Kovalchuks] were involved, but not as broadly as they would’ve liked. The regional waste operator is controlled by both their structures and VTB’s structures,” the source explained. Yuri Kovalchuk’s spokesperson didn’t respond to Meduza’s request for comment.
As Meduza reported previously, Alexander Beglov has also made himself another powerful enemy — Federation Council Chairwoman Valentina Matvienko. For a long time, the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly and the local branch of United Russia were controlled by one of Matvienko’s close allies — Vyacheslav Makarov (now a State Duma lawmaker, Makarov is the legislative assembly’s former speaker and the former leader of United Russia’s St. Petersburg branch). During the run up to the September 2021 elections, the St. Petersburg authorities managed to strip Makarov and his people of their political influence in the city: Lieutenant Governor Alexander Belsky, who is close to Beglov, became the legislative assembly’s speaker, and State Duma deputy Sergey Boyarsky took over as head of the local United Russia branch.
“Prigozhin, the Kovalchuks, and Matvienko have access to the president, they’re walking around saying: Beglov is in the wrong here, he insulted us,” said Meduza’s source close to Putin’s administration.
The Kurortny mafia
St. Petersburg’s elites are also unhappy about the fact that Beglov has been giving important positions to his old colleagues from the Kurortny district administration, where he worked in the late 1990s. Meduza’s source in the presidential envoy’s office jokingly referred to Beglov’s entourage as the “Kurortny mafia.” Similarly, the source close to the AP called them the “Sestroretsk brothers” (referring to the resort town of Sestroretsk, which is located in the Kurortny district). This group of officials and politicians includes St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly Speaker Alexander Belsky, Lieutenant Governor Anatoly Povely (who is in charge of housing and utilities policy), and former Lieutenant Governor Nikolai Bondarenko.
“For the Petersburg elite, who know Putin or his friends, this isn’t a great standard. How does Prigozhin — who already owned an elite restaurant in the late 1990s, and in the early 2000s arranged banquets for the president — view Belsky, [who] in 2014 owned a bakery chain near the subway? You think Prigozhin, the Kovalchuks, or [Rosnet CEO Igor] Sechin like that the city has such a speaker?” a source told Meduza. (He referred to St. Petersburg under Beglov as the “time of the gray mice,” calling the governor the “mouse king”).
Meduza’s source close to Putin’s administration underscored that Beglov’s ratings in St. Petersburg have always been “sluggish” — and his team’s PR maneuvers are only bringing them further down. “Instead of a meeting with Putin [he had] a meeting with [Belarus’s Alexander] Lukashenko, who proclaimed that St. Petersburg looks great from a helicopter. In response to criticism, they argue that the governor’s father reached Berlin [during World War II], and that he’s the eighth child in his family,” the source said.
According to another source close to the presidential administration, both the city’s elite and the Kremlin understand that the “purge of Makarov’s influence” was Beglov’s peak. “Beglov is a good apparatchik and schemer, these qualities came in handy here,” the source admitted.
Next stop, Belarus
Meduza’s sources think that the St. Petersburg governor resigning this year is at least a possibility — and they’re convinced that Alexander Beglov will not run for a second term in 2024.
Instead, they say Beglov’s next placement will be within the structures of the Union State between Russia and Belarus. For example, the governor might take up the post of secretary of the Union State or become the AP or Security Council’s point person on Belarus.
According to Znak.com, sources in and around Putin’s administration named the Federation Council’s deputy chairman, United Russia General Council Secretary Andrey Turchak, as Beglov’s potential replacement. Meduza’s source close to the presidential administration also confirmed that this appointment is a possibility, adding that Turchak has been “frequenting” St. Petersburg since last summer.
The source close to the presidential envoy’s office said that Andrey Turchak has already managed to establish contacts with the city’s United Russia members who were previously loyal to Vyacheslav Makarov: “Beglov has no political support, even within United Russia, Turchak has it.” Neither Alexander Beglov nor Andrey Turchak responded to Meduza’s request for comment.
That said, Meduza’s sources think that Andrey Turchak isn’t the best man for the job — and list other potential candidates like Sberbank CEO Herman Gref or Gazprom head Alexey Miller.
“But strong figures haven’t been appointed in the city so far — in the event of a successful governorship, they [would] automatically turn into the president’s competitors. So far, there are placeholders working in the city, and there’s only one real governor — Vladimir Putin,” concluded one Meduza source close to the AP.
St. Petersburg political commentator Mikhail Shevchuk also believes Alexander Beglov is likely to step down, but he doubts that it will happen any time soon. “Vladimir Putin doesn’t like to make decisions under external pressure, although it’s obvious that he’s under pressure now. In addition, such resignations aren’t usually organized quickly. Matvienko started coming under powerful pressure two years before she stepped down,” he said, noting that it’s too early to talk about a successor.
Political consultant Valentin Bianki agrees: “The Kremlin has clear rules: they don’t demand a resignation after a public information attack, otherwise everyone will start using these methods. Beglov understands this and is talking about the attacks openly.”
Translation by Eilish Hart
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