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Profile of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov

  • Lindsay Percival-Straunik



Prague/Moscow, July 3 (RFE/RL) -- It is hard not to be impressed by the achievements of Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. During his four years in office he has overseen a near transformation of the Russian capital. The skyline is awash with a new symbolism. The now crumbling Stalinist skyscrapers - once a tribute to the power and inflexibility of the Soviet state - are overshadowed by the beauty of new buildings such as the Christ the Saviour Cathedral.

The cathedral, with its golden, onion-shaped domes, is a pet project of Mayor Luzhkov to represent Russia's rebirth. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes to which it was condemned by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the cathedral says much about Luzhkov's vision of the future. "My dream is to make Moscow the most beautiful and most attractive city," he was once quoted as saying.

His critics say it is a case of misplaced priorities. Money for this costly project, they say, would have been better spent elsewhere.

But this beautification of Moscow isn't just skin deep. Luzhkov has also ushered in foreign businesses to help overhaul the city's infrastructure; improving telecommunications, repairing roads, opening new metro lines. He is most often pictured in his trademark workman's cap examining one of the many new construction sites that have sprung up around the city.

His ability to get things done has made him one of the country's most popular and powerful politicians. But his critics say Luzhkov is less like a modern-day man of action than a typical Soviet-style boss - commandeering and corrupt.

Luzhkov is often accused of running Moscow like his own personal fiefdom. The struggle for supremacy has often brought him into sharp conflict with the Kremlin. He has clashed over privatisation and won the right to have Moscow excluded from the federal programme. This gave him crucial control over revenues for the city's coffers.

The question of where and how all the money has been spent may never be fully answered. City Hall is not known for its transparency in business deals.

A short, balding man with seemingly boundless energy despite his 60 years Luzhkov became mayor in 1992 after the resignation of liberal economist Gavriil Popov. Public confidence in his ability to run the city is at an all time high. He was re-elected last month with nearly 90 per cent of the vote.

He has the staunch backing of Russian President Boris Yeltsin despite their disagreements. Election posters around the capital showed the two men smiling and shaking hands with the caption "Only together." With Yeltsin's political future in the balance it is unclear what Luzhkov's relations would be with any newcomer to the Kremlin.

His alleged corruption may already leave him vulnerable to Russia's new moral crusader, Alexander Lebed, who has already embarked on a clean sweep operation in the corridors of power. In the event of a Communist win Luzhkov has sneered at any suggestion that he would be welcomed into their fold.

Luzhkov's popularity extends well beyond the Russian capital. In May he was awarded first prize in a Russian Mayors competition. He is also seen as a role model by some newcomers like Saint Petersburg's Vladimir Yakovlev, who beat Anatoly Sobchak in elections for that city leadership last month.

He has denied any presidential ambitions and describes himself as an administrator rather than a politician. False modesty or not, Luzhkov has proved himself to be a skillful power broker.

Whatever the future holds he will be remembered as the man who drove Moscow towards the 21st Century, a rare politician more prone to deeds than words.
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