So just what is the situation in St. Petersburg today? While on a visit to the United States to discuss preparations for the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg next year, Yakovlev spoke to Yury Sigov about all these issues.
The Russia Journal: You've been to the United States and can compare how Americans' relations with Russia have changed. Do you agree that there's a cooling-off in the two countries' relations at the moment?
Vladimir Yakovlev: I think that despite all the visits, joint projects, declarations and so on, we still know very little about each other. Americans know we have the Hermitage museum, know that Putin comes from Petersburg and maybe know a bit about Peter the Great, but not much else. For us it's the same. Take St. Petersburg in Florida, for example, which is going to celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. We know hardly anything about how this city got its Russian name. I think then that the only way for us to improve our relations is to meet more often, travel, talk, work together, and then there won't be any more "cool" relations.
RJ: American businesspeople say the problem with working with Russia is the lack of Western investment standards and difficulties for civilized business. St. Petersburg doesn't have the best reputation in this respect.
VY: It's quite the opposite. In 1995-96, foreign investment in the city came to $70 million, while last year it was up to $1.16 billion. Petersburg was visited by 3.6 million tourists last year, and incomes in the city are rising by 10 percent a year. We now have more than 100 U.S. companies working in the city, including large firms such as Gillette, Coca-Cola and Motorola. Americans have been particularly active in telecommunications investments over the last two years.
During the Putin-Bush summit that will take place at the end of May in Moscow and in St. Petersburg, there will be a round-table meeting between Petersburg businesspeople and members of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
RJ: What will the priority sectors be at this meeting?
VY: Above all, the hotel business, tourism, telecommunications, port facilities and equipment, shipbuilding and high technology.
RJ: It's often said that St. Petersburg has become less democratic since you became governor. There have been plenty of complaints about how your administration treats the local media.
VY: There are over 1,200 media outlets in Petersburg and more than 100 political parties and movements. All of them are free to develop and pursue their work. We don't have any censorship and we don't put pressure on the media. Indeed, sometimes some media outlets ask me to exercise some kind of control over media outlets that have no sense of limits. But I don't meddle. President Vladimir Putin was correct in saying that the government in Russia does not meddle in the media's affairs.
RJ: It's said that all the best business and administration professionals in Petersburg are in Moscow now and that you're now left with all the incorrigible bureaucrats.
VY: I can tell you that we have enough good professionals in Petersburg to supply not just Moscow and all of Russia, but to lend some abroad, as well.
RJ: St. Petersburg has earned itself the reputation, both at home and abroad, as Russia's criminal capital. You still have unsolved contract killings, such as the murder of Galina Starovoitova. This puts businesspeople off coming to the city.
VY: To be honest, I'm tired of hearing about how dangerous St. Petersburg is. Several years ago, I visited Los Angeles, Petersburg's twin city, and I asked the police there to take me to the districts where mostly black people live. The police told me this was dangerous because, if we stopped, the wheels could be taken from the car in an instant. I insisted, though, and in the end they put me in a helicopter and we flew over those districts so as to ensure my safety. After that, I asked them how it was that they could criticize Petersburg for its crime when they had such a situation.
Just remember how America was during the Depression, when thousands of people were out of work and crime rose. In the former Soviet Union, there were all sorts of social guarantees and this system collapsed overnight, so it's no surprise that crime has shot up, including in our city. But of Russia's 89 regions, St. Petersburg is far from having the highest crime levels, and we are doing all we can to reduce crime.
RJ: Will the city be able to guarantee people's safety next year during the 300th anniversary celebrations?
VY: St. Petersburg is a large city with 4.6 million people. It's a major seaport, and unfortunately, a lot of drugs brought in from abroad go through our city. We realize that we can't deal with all these problems on our own, and we are working closely with law-enforcement agencies in other countries, including in the United States.
Just think, anyway, did anyone in the United States, with its missile defenses, interceptor planes, powerful army and so on imagine that criminals would use civilian passenger planes as guided missiles? There's never any absolute guarantee. You can slip and fall in the street, and there's nothing anyone can do about it. Of course, we are taking all the necessary measures to prevent the risks of excesses or terrorism during the anniversary celebrations. I can assure you that even my American colleagues admit that the crime level in St. Petersburg is no higher than in Washington or Los Angeles, and that life in the Russian St. Petersburg is just as safe as in St. Petersburg in Florida.
RJ: Who came up with the idea of holding joint anniversary celebrations in the Russia and Florida St. Petersburgs?
VY: It was a joint idea. We signed an agreement that we would invite guests to the celebrations on behalf of both the mayor of St. Petersburg in Florida and the governor of St. Petersburg in Russia.
RJ: What exactly will St. Petersburg be able to offer during the anniversary celebrations?
VY: Everyone knows that, as well as being politically important, St. Petersburg is Russia's cultural and scientific capital. We have 260 museums and 89 theaters. The Mariinsky Theater has just had a successful tour of the United States and our conductors, Temiryakov and Gergiyev, have been invited to lead the United States' most prominent orchestras. Everyone knows that Putin comes from St. Petersburg, so, for the anniversary celebrations, the city doesn't need any special advertising.
Our idea is to persuade Americans to come now, rather than wait for the summer of 2003. Our advice to American businesspeople is to come and work with us, and then drink champagne with our businesspeople to celebrate success.
The main celebrations will take place from May 24 to June 1, when the White Nights begin. The anniversary-celebration organizing committee is headed by Putin himself, with Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matviyenko and I as deputies, and work is moving along very fast. I have a quarterly meeting with Putin to discuss all the issues related to the celebrations. Thanks to Putin's help, we have been able to resolve financial problems a lot more quickly. But there is never enough money this is a problem not just for St. Petersburg, but for other cities as well.
RJ: What are your relations with Putin like?
VY: Our relations are even and productive. Putin comes from Petersburg and has special feelings for his native city. Our aim is to have the city at its best for the 300th anniversary celebrations, so that people in Russia and abroad can really appreciate it at its full value.
RJ: As president, could Putin do something to lobby the idea of making St. Petersburg the nation's political capital, too?
VY: I don't think this is one of his aims. St. Petersburg should make maximum use of its status as Russia's gateway to Europe, just as it was the "window on Europe" during Peter the Great's time. If we do this now and the anniversary celebrations will be a great help in this respect the city will receive new foreign investment and become even more attractive, and this will improve life for its people.