Mayor Luzhkov ouster: sign of crack in Putin-Medvedev unity?
Russian President Medvedev's scorching dismissal of Moscow Mayor Luzhkov could be opening shot in a bureaucratic battle between Putin and Medevev over who will be the establishment candidate for president.
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Medvedev appointed Luzhkov's top deputy, Vladimir Resin, to work as acting mayor until a replacement is found. But Medvedev, who suffers from the public perception that he remains a weak and dependent politician even halfway through his term as president, needs to go much further, say analysts.Skip to next paragraph
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"Medvedev has managed to avoid a loss – at least he's shown that he's man enough to fire Luzhkov – but he hasn't won yet," says Nikolai Petrov, of the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "He'll only be declared the winner if he can put one of his own team into the Moscow job. And that's far from certain at this point."
Luzhkov, a tough but gregarious man who is always seen wearing his trademark workman's cap, built a successful career as a municipal functionary in Communist times. He took over as Moscow mayor amid post-Soviet social collapse and economic crisis in 1992 and, even his critics admit, managed to conjure order and a measure of prosperity out of the chaos.
He championed subsidies for struggling pensioners and schoolchildren alike, rebuilt the city's dilapidated road system, and peppered Moscow with thousands of new apartment blocs, glittering shopping malls, glass-fronted office towers, and five-star hotels. He also sponsored monumental projects that many Muscovites viewed as tasteless, including a massive and universally reviled statue of Peter the Great, the hulking Cathedral of Christ the Saviour – which almost overshadows the Kremlin – and a grandiose but never realized project to build a giant ferris wheel atop the Sparrow Hills.
"There are good reasons why Luzhkov is extremely popular," says Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected Duma deputy. "He turned Moscow into a modern megapolis, and set a very high standard that any successor will have difficulty following."
But Luzhkov's name also became synonymous with corruption, kickbacks, and shady real estate deals. Under his tenure, the Inteko business empire, owned by his wife ,Yelena Baturina, became one of the city's leading companies and turned her into a multibillionaire. Critics also complain that Moscow's historic city center – including many ancient pearls of Russian architecture – was virtually destroyed amid a frenzied construction boom fueled by backroom deals and shady financial arrangements.
"Luzhkov probably did more damage to Moscow's architectural heritage than any previous ruler of Moscow," says Boris Kagarlitsky, director of the independent Institute of Globalization and Social Movement Studies in Moscow and a city councilman during the early Luzhkov years. "The logic behind this was just money. Every project was just a commercial opportunity, and nobody ever worked up a long-term development strategy for the city.... That's what happens when there is no community pressure and no accountability in the system."
That legacy of corruption may hobble Luzhkov, and even cancel out his undeniable popularity in Moscow, if he should seek to carve out a new political niche for himself – as the ex-mayor told a Tuesday meeting of Moscow politicians he wants to do.
"Luzhkov's family could easily face criminal charges" if he displayed independent political ambitions, says Sergei Mitrokhin, leader of the liberal Yabloko Party, and a long time critic of Luzhkov. "This is the way things happen in Russia. You don't have to be the worst offender, but if you show independence, you'll be crushed."