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.
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."
Winston Churchill once remarked that observing a Russian power-struggle "is like watching two dogs fighting under a carpet," and little appears to have changed since his day.
However, "there may be quite a few bulldogs under this particular carpet, and it's hard to know who they all are," says Nikolai Petrov, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "What this demonstrates is that Russia still has no effective mechanism for regulating such elite conflicts. When they're intense like this, they spill into the public sphere, with all these charges of corruption and so on. No matter who wins, this spectacle hurts authority and diminishes public respect for all politicians."
Mr. Medvedev would seem to have the strongest incentives to go after Luzhkov, an old-time politician whose name has become a byword for corruption, and a Kremlin spokesman this week pointedly reminded journalists that the president's sweeping constitutional powers entitle him to fire the mayor on a moment's notice, just as he has dismissed several regional leaders in recent months. But then, say some analysts, why hasn't he?
"This is the test that will show whether Medvedev is a viable candidate for president. If he proves he can use his constitutional powers, and removes Luzhkov in the next few days, he will show he's a real president and an independent politician. But if Luzhkov stays, or even if it takes a month or so to force him to resign, we'll know it was Putin who made the decision. Then we'll know for sure that Putin's our next president."
For his part, Putin has remained silent on Luzhkov's tribulations, despite a busy week that included holding a national conference of United Russia, of which he is leader. Analysts agree, however, that the storm of TV allegations against Luzhkov could never have been broadcast without Putin's permission. So, what is he up to?
"Putin hasn't made up his mind what to do about Luzhkov," says Mr. Kolesnikov. "Luzhkov has a strong base of support in Moscow, and he's fighting to stay until his term ends in a year. Luzhkov is an enemy of Medvedev, and Putin is in the position of deciding whether it's more convenient to save him, or break him. But there's little doubt that Putin is the main force, the one who will decide."
Others argue that the careening "Luzhkov affair" is yet another example of Putin and Medvedev staging political theater in a well-orchestrated tandem, aimed at keeping their own circle – known as the "St. Petersburg clan" because its members hail from Russia's second-largest city – in power indefinitely.
"The Petersburg clan has laid its paws on all Russia, and is dividing the country up among themselves. Moscow is a big remaining tidbit, and they're working on how to get it," says Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy chair of the state Duma's security committee. "I don't see any difference between our top leaders; they are acting as one team. It's a tragedy, because the government headed by Putin is one of the worst Russia has ever had."