Woman takes Russia's number three post
Russia's upper house on Wednesday elected the ex-governor of Saint Petersburg Valentina Matviyenko as its speaker, giving a woman for the first time one of the top state posts in the country.
Matviyenko, who was in charge of Russia's second city from 2003 until earlier this year, was overwhelmingly approved as Federation Council speaker in a ceremonial vote with 140 votes in favour, one abstention and none against.
Known for her impeccably coiffured hair and glamorous power dressing, Matviyenko, 62, is taking on what according to the constitution is Russia's most powerful post after that of president and prime minister.
Although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's cabinet contains several women, no woman has held one of Russia's top three posts in modern Russian history. Going further back, only Catherine the Great could claim to have held greater powers.
However cynics point out that the Federation Council acts as no more than a rubber-stamp and the theoretical powers of its speaker are easily trumped by any number of shadowy behind-the-scenes officials and security service members.
The new speaker also gave a swift indication she had no intention of worrying the Kremlin.
"I'm not in favour of revolutions. I don't believe in populism. I'm not a supporter of radical decisions. Practice has shown that usually these are harmful," she said.
Indeed, Matviyenko seemed initially reluctant to quit her Saint Petersburg post and some media said the new job was just a consolation prize as the ruling party United Russia no longer trusted her to win votes in the city.
The Federation Council post became vacant after its former incumbent Sergei Mironov was ousted apparently for being critical of the Kremlin, a surreal charge given that he heads what is nominally an opposition party.
Starting under the rule of late Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Matviyenko has enjoyed a meteoric career which, according to the daily Vedomosti, has seen her "in demand under any political framework".
Under Brezhnev she was a secretary in the Komsomol youth organisation, under Konstantin Chernenko she became a party secretary and then during the rule of the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev a deputy, the paper noted.
She served as a deputy prime minister under Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and as governor of Saint Petersburg in the presidency of Vladimir Putin, himself a native of the city.
Political analyst Alexei Mukhin told Moscow Echo radio that with Matviyenko's election, United Russia "is starting to set in place total control not just over the lower house of parliament but the upper house."
United Russia, whose overall leader is Putin, dominates the State Duma lower chamber and is expected to easily retain control in the upcoming December 4 parliamentary polls.
But Matviyenko said she was determined to change the Federation Council's reputation as a mere rubber stamp chamber.
"We have to feel the pulse of the country constantly. We need to make sure that the voice of the regions is not just heard but taken account of in decision-making."
The Federation Council, which is not directly elected, draws its membership from Russia's 83 regions, each of whom sends two representatives to the chamber.
© 2011 AFP