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.

Mikhail Metzel/AP/File
In this May 8 file photo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (r.) and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (c.) attended a ceremony to lay a corner stone for a war memorial in Victory Park on the eve of Victory Day in Moscow.

Yesterday, Yury Luzhkov was the powerful mayor of Moscow. After almost two decades in office, he was Russia's longest-serving leader, married to the world's third-richest woman, and one of the country's few politicians able to claim at least a quasi-independent base of support. He never lost an election.

Today, following a scorching dismissal by President Dmitry Medvedev, he's just "Citizen Luzhkov." Last month, Mr. Luzhkov made the mistake of calling Mr. Medvedev "indecisive" in a newspaper article, and later bragged about his ability to get out the vote for the pro-Kremlin United Russia party. In true Soviet style, the Kremlin now expects him to fade away to his country dacha – or perhaps his wife's Austrian chateau – and never be heard from again.

But will he?

Medvedev made himself very clear in his decree, signed during a state visit to China on Tuesday, which said Luzhkov was being "dismissed from the position of Moscow mayor because he has lost the trust of the president." That wording is almost unheard of in Russia, where strict obedience to the Kremlin script is mandatory, and top leaders typically prefer to say they are granting an official's request to resign due to reasons of "ill health," or some such.

But a surprisingly self-confident Luzkhov, who has been under attack in Russia's state-run media for almost a month, dug in his heels and, as late as Monday evening, was insisting that he would never resign.

In a flash of anger at a reporter who asked about that, Medvedev snapped: "It's not 'unusual' to use the word 'dismissed' [in such a decree] – this is the first time ever....

"It's not possible to work in a condition where the president has no faith in an official," he continued. "But that's what has occurred here."

Lighting up an opaque political landscape

What happens next may shed a flood of light upon Russia's normally opaque political landscape, experts say.

If the system of near-total Kremlin supremacy built by former president and current Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is as rock-solid as its supporters say, then the mayor's sacking may be viewed as just a passing chapter in the long consolidation of power by the mighty political faction that includes both Mr. Putin and Medvedev working in friendly "tandem."

But if, as others suggest, the removal of Luzkhov is just the opening shot in a looming bureaucratic battle between the two top leaders over which of them will be the establishment candidate for president in polls that are barely a year-and-a-half away, then the disgraced mayor might just have been handed a fresh lease on political life.

"Luzhkov has shown himself to be a strong and independent player, and nobody's puppet," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "By holding out as he did, he may have driven a wedge in the public face of unity between Medvedev and Putin. And if there are contradictions between them, Luzhkov has created space for himself to maneuver between them. He retains considerable influence in Moscow, which could make a big difference if he decides to back Putin. There are even rumours that Luzhkov could run for president himself in 2012, as the candidate of all those many people who've been offended by Putin and Medvedev. If so, Medvedev has just enabled him in that role."

Moscow, a hub of bureaucracy, is Russia's political and economic control panel. More than 70 percent of the country's financial resources nest in Moscow banks and bourses, while the city's 7-million voters – most of them perennial Luzhkov supporters – could make or break any future presidential candidate.

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.

"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."

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