Elections and irregularities in Russia

Yudmila Narusova is a member of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Federation, wife of the late mayor of St Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and mother of TV personality Xenia Sobchak. In an interview with Kathimerini, she speaks openly about serious issues that concern her in Russia, including elections and environmental indifference. She also mentions her longstanding relationship with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, as well as with Greece. I read that when you were still at school you worked as an assistant at a night school for deaf and dumb children, and that in 2001 the first hospice in St Petersburg opened thanks to you. How did you find that out? I’d forgotten that I had worked as an assistant. In the USSR, there was a law that stipulated that, in order to gain university entrance, you had to have two years’ work experience. So when I finished eighth grade, I worked for that program. In the end, I needn’t have, because I graduated from school with a gold medal and so entered university after just one examination and without having to cite my work experience. Of course, nothing in life is wasted and I can still use sign language. The hospice you mentioned was not only the first in St Petersburg but the first in Russia. Looking at your photographs, I can see how the president of Russia, the prime minister and half the cabinet worked with your husband. During his term as mayor of St Petersburg, his deputy was Vladimir Putin. Others who worked in their office were Dmitry Medvedev, (Economy Minister) Alexey Kudrin, (Sberbank director) German Gref, (Deputy Prime Minister) Dmitry Kozak and Gazprom director (Alexey Miller). Now the team that worked at City Hall in St Petersburg rules the country. Opposition parties have spoken of irregularities in the regional and municipal elections held in Russia two weeks ago. Do you agree with their accusations? I had high expectations for those elections. I believe that the ambitions of the governors, who are appointed by the Kremlin and are not elected by the people, contribute to abuses and to the use of state machinery to achieve their aims. This is not corruption in the full sense of the term – of removing or adding ballots. It is the desire of state functionaries to do the bidding of their superiors. This has a decisive effect on the electoral outcome, making elections lose the meaning of a popular vote. It is a very dangerous trend. As I said, it isn’t fraud but an abuse of state machinery. If I am not mistaken, you are a member of the Union for Resistance to Fascism. How do explain the upsurge of fascism in Russia, above all in St Petersburg, when nobody has forgotten the millions of your countrymen who were killed by the Nazis? St Petersburg has always been multiethnic. When Peter the Great was building it, he brought in Italian architects, German administrators and Dutch engineers. From the outset, it was a city of many religions and peoples. It had the Armenian Church and the largest mosque in Europe. We never used to have such phenomena and it makes no sense in a city that experienced the 900-day siege in the war and which has 2 million dead in Piskarevsky Cemetery. There are skinheads not only in St Petersburg but also in Moscow, Yekaterinburg and elsewhere. Are you concerned about Russia’s environmental problems? Very much so. I think environmental protection is in a sorry state. Now that the president is preparing his annual message, he has asked the public to suggest topics he should cover in his speech. Unfortunately, less than 1 percent of them indicated any environmental concerns. We still do not possess ecological awareness. Russians only showed an interest after Chernobyl. What is your opinion of Vladimir Putin? I have great respect for him and I love him as a person. He’s a true friend and at any moment I know his strong shoulder is at my side. I see his work in a very positive light. Do you agree with those who accuse him of a lack of democratic processes? Democracy was born in ancient Greece. That democracy had slaves, which truly democratic conditions do not allow. We are talking about different stages of democracy. This shows us that we cannot see it as a fixed dogma and say this is a democracy and that isn’t. The same applies to Putin. Democracy is a living organism that evolves. In old photos I see your husband with Pu-tin and Medve-dev, as a child. Did you foresee their advancement? No, but in general I’m pleased to see young people do well. Will Medve-dev reach the same heights as Putin? They are in different categories. Medvedev has been in power for only two years. I very much like what he has done in those two years, but let’s see what he can do in the future when his «muscles get stronger.» As a «mother,» I cannot expect my younger son to cycle as well as his older brother. What is your view of Greece? I really love Greece. I’ve visited many times. Very close friends of mine live there. You have had the good fortune to live in St Petersburg for many years. What is your favorite corner of that fabulous city? My house. It’s on the bank of the canal, exactly opposite the house where Pushkin lived and died. From my windows, I can see the windows of his study. It’s less than five minutes on foot from the State Hermitage Museum.