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The Kremlin Performs A Luzhkovectomy

Putin seemed to back Luzhkov during this meeting last month.

Putin seemed to back Luzhkov during this meeting last month.

The scandal around Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov promises to be the hit spectacle of the new season of Russian political theater. Of course, the drama (replete with plenty of comic relief and, so far, missing only some tawdry sex) is still playing out. But we’ve already seen enough to make a few observations.

The most obvious, of course, is that the state-controlled media in Russia (like the police and prosecutors) remain – if there was ever any doubt – a purely political tool wielded by the Kremlin to solidify its own hold on power. The Internet has become an increasingly powerful force in Russia in recent months (Yulia Latynina wrote this week that it is becoming so powerful that it seems unlikely the country’s rulers will tolerate it much longer), but it cannot rival the opinion-shaping power of state television. Of course, when we say “opinion shaping” in this context, we mean sending to the broader public the signal of what the rulers think so that it can be mirrored back, rather than actually changing people’s convictions. Everyone now knows that Luzhkov is a pariah, and they’d better back away if they know what is good for them.

(Here are some clips of the NTV attack on Luzhkov that kicked things off with translation in English.)

The political exploitation of the media and the police that lies at the heart of the Putinist system in Russia was made clear by Kirov Oblast Governor Nikita Belykh, a former Union of Rightist Forces leader who participated in Marches of Dissent before deciding he’d have a better chance of sending his sons to an English boarding school if he shut his mouth and became a governor. “Everything that we were arrested for when we were saying the same thing about Luzhkov,” Belykh said today, “that is exactly what is now all over all the television channels. That’s what is galling.”

Miriam Elder has a nice piece as well on how activists who have been spitting hopelessly into the wind for years are suddenly now “sources” of “news” for the Kremlin-controlled media. Many of the accusations that have been leveled against Luzhkov and his wife were spelled out in a booklet by former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov a year ago (and since updated). Nemtsov has written a similar book about Vladimir Putin, in case the ruling elite changes its mind about him as well.

REN-TV even dredged up some year-old footage (see video here, Nemtsov is about 2 1/2 minutes in) of Nemtsov recapping his charges against Luzhkov (who is, by the way, a cochairman of the Upper Council of the ruling United Russia party). A nonperson is reborn. Of course, state TV is unlikely to actually put a microphone in front of a live Nemtsov…. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for him to appear on Vladimir Solovyov’s “Duel.”)

The next step in the Luzhkov story will be to watch his “popularity rating” fall. A Levada Center poll from November 2009 found that 60 percent of Muscovites rated him favorably, although 56 percent believed the charges of corruption against him are “most likely true.” Of course, Putin and Medvedev have to be careful about shattering the illusion of “popularity” in Russia’s managed political environment (just as they have to be careful not to let the Luzhkov stain taint United Russia).

The Luzkhov affair, so far, raises more questions than answers about the power structure in Russia. But it makes clear the obvious fact that the system does not operate by the formal rules it outwardly professes to be guided by. A spokesperson for the presidential administration told reporters today on condition of anonymity that it is the president’s prerogative to decide who is the mayor of Moscow. We can only speculate why someone would demand anonymity for such a banal pronouncement.

One explanation for the crisis is that Medvedev is tired of corruption in Moscow and wants Luzhkov out as part of his much-ballyhooed, but essentially ineffective anticorruption campaign (Just as this deal was going down, prosecutors were demanding documents from the main anticorruption NGO in Russia, Transparency International, in a move that was widely seen as political preparation for the upcoming election season. The independent and effective election-monitoring NGO Golos was also targeted. The anticorruption campaign is about politics.)

Using such extra-legal and politically motivated means to achieve an anticorruption end seems pretty dubious to me. Certainly it is bound only to increase public cynicism. Particularly if, as seems likely to be the case, the matter ends with Luzhkov’s dismissal from the mayor’s office and appointment to some other cushy sinecure with his purported ill-gotten gains intact. If the corruption allegations against Luzhkov have substance and were pursued properly by the Audit Chamber and prosecutors, there would no doubt be dozens of prosecutions that would run right through the country’s political and economic elites. (But given Russia’s politicized prosecutors and courts, even that kind of real corruption fight would come off looking like a purge rather than a legitimate process of a law-based state.)

A corollary of this anticorruption thesis is that the battle is Medvedev versus Luzhkov, with Putin waiting on the sidelines to cast his deciding vote. Luzhkov has already renounced his opposition to the proposed highway through the Khimki forest (which Putin and his supporters are pushing) and has solicited and received some support from United Russia, which Putin heads. He is hoping with all his might to get a public vote of confidence from the prime minister during a United Russia conference in Nizhny Novgorod tomorrow.

Putin, so far, has been silent.

But I’m not convinced there is any kind of split between Medvedev and Putin or that Medvedev could launch such an all-out attack on his own. Control of state television is crucial to politics in Russia, and I have seen no evidence that Medvedev has some wrested this huge asset away from Putin. (Blogger Denis Bilunov noted that having brought the might of the state media to bear, the Kremlin cannot afford to let Luzhkov off the hook: “Would the conclusion be that the blabbering of the news readers on ‘Vremya’ is no different from the blabbering on Twitter? Then how would they puff up the next Putin Plan?”)

But let’s speculate for a moment (N.B – I said I am speculating here, so don’t bother writing in and pointing out that I have no proof. I know I have no proof. I admit it.). Suppose the assault on Luzhkov is a way of signaling to the elites that the tandem is working just fine.

What if the point is to show them that all the talk Medvedev is some sort of legally minded improvement on Putin’s authoritarianism is window dressing, that when push comes to shove he is willing and able to do whatever it takes to maintain the system?

What if the point is to make Medvedev look as tough (in the Russian political style) as Putin is, so that the ruling elites won’t be scared of some sort of “civiliki” administration if the decision is made to appoint him to a second term? That despite the push for “modernization,” the same old rules apply when it comes to politics? (Speaking of “modernization,” one of the points of the Luzhkovectomy is almost certainly to set up someone else in the inner circle to reap the huge financial rewards that are sure to leak out of the Skolkovo project.)

What if the point is to signal to the ruling elites that Putin will make the 2012 decision on his own and that anyone who tries to influence this process will be slapped down without hesitation?

-- Robert Coalson

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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