A Russian leader on porridge, czars, and real estate

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov is considered a leading contender for the presidency in Russia's scheduled 2000 election, though he has not yet announced his candidacy. A Soviet apparatchik unbound, he has flamboyantly and brutishly helped define Russia's new brand of democratic capitalism. His style of machine politics and financial wheeling and dealing has changed the face - and tenor - of Moscow with elaborate real estate developments and an iron grip on who may or may not live or do business there.

Reelected to city hall in 1996 with nearly 90 percent of the vote, Mr. Luzkhov's challenge in the presidential elections will be how to extend his enormous local popularity beyond the glitter of the city limits to the far-flung, impoverished regions of Russia.

The Monitor's Moscow bureau chief, Judith Matloff, was granted a written interview with Luzkhov. Excerpts of that interview follow.

How did you get your reputation as a "man who gets things done"?

Moscow is quite successful, compared with the other Russian regions and the country as a whole. Why? There are many reasons.

First, there is the philosophy of the Moscow city government: Government should serve its citizens. Our main task is to create conditions so that every capable citizen can work, own property, raise and educate his children, and have proper leisure. The government must help those who can't feed themselves because of poor health or old age.

Second is our devotion to a market economy and free-market reform. We are sure that tremendous creative potential is connected with the market mechanism, but it has to be used skillfully.

Our strength is that we managed to insist on our reforms, which differed from those imposed on the country by such Russian monetarists as [former Yeltsin ministers Yegor] Gaidar and [Anatoly] Chubais.

The criteria for effective reform are economic growth and prosperity of the people. That's why we decided not to enforce a process of privatization in which Moscow property would be sold freely, regardless of the buyer. Our privatization process was based on the principle that we sell property according to its real market value, and the new owner be obliged to use it effectively. As a result, Moscow earned more money from its privatizations than the federal government did from the privatizations it conducted throughout the whole country.

Which historical figures are your role models? Are there contemporary figures who share your views on Russia's transformation?

I admire the genius of Peter the Great, the Russian czar at the beginning of the 18th century. Because of his Titanic efforts, he managed to transform Russia from an underdeveloped country into a powerful modern European state. He conducted all his reforms by providing his subjects with his personal example. He did all sorts of work, if it was necessary for his country. He was a carpenter, constructing cities and ships with his own hands. He was a blacksmith and melded big guns for his army. He commanded his regiments in battle.

I respect the American people and their history. I know how much effort and energy went into making America become, over a short period, one of the world's most developed and prosperous countries. Most of all, I admire President [Franklin] Roosevelt, who had the courage to propose and implement the New Deal during the worst economic crisis. This policy was based on the interests of the state and nation and served America well.

There are many talented and diligent people in modern Russia, including politicians and scientists. I've already mentioned many times [democratic reformer and presidential hopeful Grigory] Yavlinsky, whose ideas are the closest to mine.

Which parties could be potential political allies of your new party, Fatherland, in the 2000 elections?

We are open to all alliances, but not with just anyone and not without certain principles. [Among] the main criteria for an alliance would be the continuation of market reforms in the interests of the country and the majority of its citizens.

Generally, our wish is to create an organization which would unite only people who have proved that they can do concrete work, to create new material and spiritual values for the sake of the whole country.

As far as the Communist Party ... we have many ideological differences.

It seems to me that [Our Home is Russia, the democratic reform party of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin] ... should confess that it embraced the wrong approach when it was in power.

What are your main achievements and failings as Moscow mayor?

Moscow has essentially changed for the better. Many things have been built and are being constructed right now. Despite the decline of productivity throughout the country, Moscow's production - including in industry - managed to grow. Living standards of Muscovites are rising, and we have practically no unemployment.

What are our drawbacks? Well, you want all my secrets!

We continue to worry about the housing problem. Although we have built a lot of apartments, we are still unable to meet the demand for new, modern housing.

The periodic financial and economic crises are our main obstacles. The federal government is to blame for crises like the one in August 1998. But I am still sure that we will fulfill our promises to Muscovites [to improve their living conditions].

What are your hobbies, favorite foods, films, and books? How do you relax?

I have practically no leisure time. In the past, I liked to do carpentry, wood carving, and beekeeping.

But currently I prefer to pay more attention to keeping myself in shape. I regularly play soccer, tennis, and ride horses.

My favorite writer is Dostoevsky, but I don't have enough time for reading.

My favorite dish is pshennaya kasha (buckwheat porridge with milk and sweetened pumpkin).

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