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Russia: Moscow Mayor's Power On The Wane As He Enters Fifth Term

  • Chloe Arnold --> Luzhkov addresses the Moscow City Duma ahead of a vote on his nomination (ITAR-TASS) MOSCOW, July 24, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- It was an awkward moment for a flamboyant politician. As the silver medal of St. George was placed around Yury Luzhkov's neck during his fifth inauguration as mayor of Moscow, President Vladimir Putin compared him to the conductor of an orchestra who couldn't get his musicians to play in unison.

Luzhkov, who was sworn in for another four years in office on July 6, is indeed a divisive figure. While many Muscovites credit him with transforming the city into a gleaming, bustling capital, others accuse him of tearing down historic buildings and allowing his cronies to replace them with brash skyscrapers and casinos.

Mayoral Qualities

But few doubt his conviction that what he is doing is right, as evidenced by his address to the Moscow City Duma before his nomination by the president was approved.

"I consider the election for the high position of mayor of the capital as a tool to achieve the goals of development that Moscow and Muscovites need," Luzhkov said on June 27. "We are confident we will achieve these goals."

Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the Moscow city legislature, lists some of the mayoral attributes President Putin may have considered before proposing Luzhkov for another term.

"I consider the election for the high position of mayor of the capital as a tool to achieve the goals of development that Moscow and Muscovites need. We are confident we will achieve these goals." -- Luzhkov

"Without a doubt, Luzhkov has a strong side to him, most Muscovites like him a lot. He's what's known as a 'people's mayor', and you can't argue with that," Mitrokhin said. "And all the shortfalls, all the negative things that have happened during his tenure, which you cannot in any way ignore, are obscured by this 'friendliness,' by this closeness to the people. I, for example, supported his appointment, because I thought that any other candidate that the Kremlin might have put forward would have been much worse than Luzhkov."

Under Luzhkov, who has served as mayor since 1992, pensioners travel free on public transport. Potholes have been filled. He oversaw the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior, which Soviet officials had blown up and replaced with an open-air swimming pool. And he employs an army of workers to keep the streets icicle-free in winter and to plant banks of flowers, often spelling out patriotic slogans, in the summer.

"His greatest achievement is that Moscow managed to emerge from the Yeltsin reforms -- and the Putin reforms -- unscathed," Mitrokhin said. "Moscow today enjoys a high level of social welfare. That's in the sphere of communal maintenance and repairs; in Moscow people still receive support for communal services. And as for subsidies -- Moscow still retains all of these without the help of federal authorities, even as Putin is beginning to restrict these subsidies across the country."

Family Business

But others blame Luzhkov for bad traffic and chronic pollution.

"The traffic jams are very huge, the public transportation doesn't give you a chance to get anywhere either. The ecology is bad. The prices are too high. The work of the police is far from being ideal," said Aleksandr Lebedev, a member of parliament who ran for mayor against Luzhkov in 2003. "There's lots of gambling all around which is, alongside the business of construction, the best beloved business of the Moscow bureaucracy. And so the Moscow bureaucracy is a big business clan, rather than people responsible for making our life better."

Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, is considered Russia's richest woman (ITAR-TASS)

Luzhkov's detractors point to his wife's business as evidence of what they allege is cronyism inside his administration. Yelena Baturina is Russia's richest woman, according to "Forbes" magazine. She runs a company called Inteko, which has made billions of dollars in the construction business. Many of its contracts are to build properties in Moscow, where the mayor's office hands out building licenses. She denies that her business benefits from her husband's position.

Whatever the views on Luzhkov's record, his fifth term marks a watershed. Before, he has been elected by a popular vote, giving him a massive power base of his own. Now though, direct elections for regional leaders have been abandoned. Luzhkov -- once one of Russia's most powerful figures -- is now effectively a Kremlin appointee whose approval was rubber-stamped by the city parliament. Putin's criticism at the inauguration ceremony appeared designed to remind Luzhkov who was the boss.

Lebedev says Luzhkov was only kept in his job because the Kremlin needs him to secure votes for its candidates in this December's parliamentary elections and presidential election March. Once that is done, the long-serving mayor will probably be encouraged to retire.

"There is a Russian proverb: they don't change horses when they cross a river," Lebedev said. "And they (the Kremlin), I think, are still of the opinion that Luzhkov controls some of the votes, that he has some support, which has yet to be checked in December."

Time Is Coming

Mitrokhin went further, saying: "I think Luzhkov is too influential a figure to get rid of just like that. They (the Kremlin) want someone new to be mayor, they want someone to take charge of the city. A lot of people in the Kremlin are clearly unhappy that Luzhkov's clan is in charge of Moscow. But moving him would be very dangerous, because he's very popular with most Muscovites. And so moving him before the parliamentary elections and particularly the presidential election would be rather risky for the Kremlin."

Many observers predict that once Luzhkov's usefulness to the Kremlin has run its course, he will step down to take up a post in the federal government. But what is clear, they say, is that the power wielded by the man once known as Moscow's 'tsar' is gradually coming to an end.

RFE/RL Russia Report

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