Moscow becoming election battleground for Putin, Medvedev
Moscow is becoming heated ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. Efforts to undermine the Moscow mayor politically signals a struggle to control the city's electoral votes, an important political chip.
Moscow's powerful Mayor Yury Luzhkov, arguably Russia's most canny and independently based politician, has suddenly become the target of an orchestrated campaign to unseat him, including serious corruption allegations broadcast on state TV and broad hints from the Kremlin that his days may be numbered.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Luzhkov, who has run Moscow as a virtual fiefdom for the past 19 years, has mobilized his considerable resources and is vowing to fight to the end.
The drama over Luzhkov's fate has gripped the country's news media for days – as a similar political death-match would almost anywhere – but the thing that makes this a distinctly Russian power play is that no one can say for sure who – or what – is behind the growing assault on the mayor.
Most analysts think it has something to do with the upcoming fight between incumbent President Dmitry Medvedev and his indefatigable predecessor, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, over who will win the back-room battle to be the establishment's candidate in the 2012 presidential race. Both men have lately been signaling that they want the job.
If either man is able to remove the obstinate Luzhkov and place a loyal supporter in charge of Russia's strategic hub of power, Moscow, it might prove a decisive advantage.
There can be little doubt that someone at the top is gunning for Luzhkov. Last weekend all three state-run TV networks aired "documentary" reports on the mayor's record, accusing him of corruption, nepotism, and incompetence, with just a hint that the elderly Luzhkov may also be getting senile.
One program, featuring the country's most feared attack journalist, Sergei Dorenko, was watched by 25 percent of Moscow's TV audience, twice the normal rating. Mr. Dorenko pointed out that Luzhkov abandoned Moscow for his wife's chateau in Austria at the height of last summer's heat-and-smog emergency, and accused the mayor of preferring his favorite hobby of beekeeping to looking after the city's hardest-hit residents.
"It's good to be a bee," jibed Dorenko. "They get well taken care of" in Moscow.
The program also suggested the mayor was guilty of systemic corruption, and that he guides city construction contracts to Iteko, a company owned by his billionaire wife Yelena Baturina. Luzhkov has denied all the allegations, and his lawyers have been busy this week filing lawsuits against the TV networks and several newspapers that reported on the programs (under Russian libel law even quoting an allegation is treated the same as making it).
Luzhkov also fought back this week by holding a Moscow chapter meeting of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, which unanimously endorsed his continued leadership. On Wednesday, Moscow's United Russia-dominated city council also voted 100 percent, including three opposition Communists, to support the embattled mayor.
"The mayor is using all his resources to defend himself, and they are considerable," says Petrov. "But beneath that facade of unanimity, Luzhkov's team does not look solid. That loud unanimity is actually a warning, a sign of weakness."