Ivan Sekretarev/AP Photo
Moscow ex-mayor Yuri Luzhkov reacts during the Unesco's early childhood care conference in Moscow, Russia, on Monday, Sept. 27. Luzhkov has announced he will lead a pro-democracy movement in Russia.

Moscow ex-mayor starting movement to promote more democracy

Moscow ex-mayor Yury Luzhkov, dismissed last week by President Medvedev, says he is going to launch a political movement to counter an antidemocratic drift. Many activists are skeptical of Luzhkov's pro-democracy credentials.

Yury Luzhkov, the long-serving mayor of Moscow who was fired last week by President Dmitry Medvedev following a nasty public battle, said Monday that he will start his own political movement to combat the antidemocratic drift of Russian society.

"I am going to form my own political movement," Mr. Luzhkov said in an interview with the opposition newsweekly New Times. "Today our society has undemocratic laws ... and has become largely disintegrated in all areas," including a dearth of media freedom.

"That is what I am going to fight against," he added.

He said his removal from the job he'd held for 18 years was "a political issue" connected with the upcoming 2012 presidential elections. Both incumbent President Medvedev and the powerful ex-president and current prime minister, Vladimir Putin, have been jockeying for position in what will likely be a tough bureaucratic struggle for the establishment nomination in that contest.

But Luzhkov added that he wasn't planning to start his own political party to compete with United Russia – from which he resigned last week – nor did he intend to throw his hat into the presidential ring.

The ex-mayor's declaration that he's going into opposition drew snorts of disbelief from Russia's beleaguered pro-democracy activists Monday.

Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a leader of the Solidarnost anti-Kremlin coalition, says it's been barely a month since he and 70 others were arrested after Luzhkov sent ranks of armored riot police to smash a small "freedom of assembly" rally his organization tried to hold on Moscow's central Triumph Square.

"It seems like everyone who retires from [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin's camp immediately wants to transform himself into a champion of democracy," says Mr. Nemtsov. "But we do have functioning memories. We remember how Luzhkov established censorship on Moscow's TV airwaves, how he organized fraudulent elections in Moscow last year to ensure victory for the [pro-Kremlin] United Russia party, and how he used the courts to crush us."

In his interview, Luzhkov said he wasn't going to bother utilizing his constitutional right to appeal his dismissal to the Supreme Court. "I can't imagine that the Supreme Court will make a ruling that would contradict the presidential order," he said.

That's an amazing admission, says Mr. Nemtsov, whose own intensely critical book about Luzhkov's 18-year tenure in Moscow, titled "Luzhkov: The Results," landed him in a Luzhkov-run Moscow court, where he was convicted of libel.

"I have been up against Luzhkov in Moscow courts 22 times over the years," says Nemtsov. "And every time they ruled against me, Luzhkov would say that Moscow courts are completely open and fair. Now he says he wouldn't trust his own fate to a Russian court."

Some experts believe that Luzhkov, who was rated favorably by more than 60 percent of Muscovites in a November 2009 poll, could have a political impact if he's serious about going into public opposition.

"He's famous, experienced, and well-regarded by Russians. He's a very prominent figure on the post-Soviet political stage," says Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy head of the Duma's security committee. "A political figure like him, outside of the authorities' control, could become a real headache."

Luzhkov's Achilles heel, most experts say, is the murky legacy of corruption that hangs over his nearly two-decade rule in Moscow. The ex-mayor's wife, Yelena Baturina, became a multibillionaire through her ownership of companies such as construction firm Inteko, amid a Moscow real estate boom marked by insider deals and shady financial arrangements.

The former mayor has always angrily denied corruption allegations, but he appeared to admit his vulnerability in Monday's interview: "Of course I am not ready to go to jail and I am not going there since I worked as a mayor honestly," he said.

Some experts suggest Luzhkov's sudden burst of pro-democracy rhetoric is just a bit of theater, aimed at protecting himself – and his wife – against the inevitable onslaught of enemies seeking revenge and a redivision of the spoils of Moscow power.

"Luzhkov's wife has many angry competitors who couldn't touch her while he was mayor, and now their knives are out," says Alexei Mukhin, director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"She is busy moving her business interests out of Russia, to Austria, and he is giving her cover...Since Luzhkov has no pre-existing reputation as a democrat, he needs to manufacture one. It's very useful, especially in the West, to tell people you're being prosecuted in Russia for political reasons, and not because you were actually guilty of corruption... I think the Kremlin understands this, and doesn't feel the slightest bit threatened by Luzhkov."

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