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Opposition Protest Adds Pressure On Moscow's Embattled Mayor

  • Olga Vakhonicheva

Is Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov a pawn in a wider political struggle?

Is Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov a pawn in a wider political struggle?

MOSCOW -- More than 1,000 Muscovites have gathered to demonstrate against their city's embattled mayor, Yury Luzhkov, raising pressure on the man who has run Moscow since 1992 to step down before his term expires in June.

The powerful mayor has been the target of an unprecedented media attack on state-run television, fueling speculation that the Kremlin wants him out.

Opposition protesters on September 25 called for an end to Luzhkov's rule and for a return of the direct election of regional leaders. Under legislation adopted during the presidency of Vladimir Putin, regional leaders are appointed, not elected.

"There is only one way to place authorities under the people's control: regular elections," said opposition politician Vladimir Ryzhkov, among the rally's most prominent figures.

"This is today's main slogan, and I'm sure those around us came here to support this simple, obvious idea that is stipulated in the constitution. But current authorities trample the constitution, just like they trample all laws."

Wedge Between Putin, Medvedev?

The power struggle surrounding the 74-year-old Luzhkov erupted into the open after the mayor, who is seen as close to Putin, now prime minister, but increasingly at odds with President Dmitry Medvedev, criticized the president in a newspaper article two weeks ago.

In his article, he described the mood in Russian society as "difficult" and condemned the president's decision to suspend a controversial project to build a highway between Moscow and St. Petersburg through a forest.

Luzhkov has become a frequent target of opposition protests.
Medvedev was quick to fire back, publicly scolding Luzhkov and saying that "officials should either participate in building institutions or join the opposition."

Following Luzhkov's article, a Kremlin source was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying that unnamed Moscow officials were seeking to drive a wedge between Medvedev and Putin -- a clear hint at Luzhkov.

Chief Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov appeared to join in the attack on Luzhkov, saying that regional leaders should not be older than 70.

Commentators say that for once, the Kremlin and the opposition are fighting the same battle.

Corruption Allegations

But opposition figure Vladimir Milov, who initiated the September 25 rally, said this didn't mean the opposition was moving closer to the Kremlin.

"The Kremlin television channels are novices on this issue," Milov said. "We started talking about corruption by Moscow authorities long before them, and we are not prepared to stop."

State-controlled television channel NTV this month broadcast programs accusing Luzhkov and his wife, billionaire businesswoman Yelena Baturina, of large-scale corruption.

The films also slammed Luzhkov for staying out of Moscow in the worst days of this summer's heat wave, when toxic smoke from peat fires choked Moscow.

Both the mayor and his wife have been defiant.

Luzhkov has repeated he will not resign, and his spokesman insisted that the mayor would resume his duties after he returned from his holiday in Kitzbuehel, Austria, on September 27.

Baturina, ranked by "Forbes" magazine as Russia's richest woman, has accused Medvedev of trying to prevent Luzhkov from campaigning for Putin in the 2012 presidential election.

Both have announced plans to sue Russian state television channels for defamation and harming their business reputation.
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