It’s Russia's first real political drama in years.
This summer, critics of Moscow’s powerful Mayor Yury Luzhkov lobbed the first salvos of a public campaign against him for failing to cut short his Austrian vacation when Muscovites were choking on smoke from fires caused by a record heat wave.
The effort kicked into high gear on September 10 when state-controlled NTV television aired a withering condemnation of Luzhkov
in a prime-time report.
Why did the mayor -- an avid beekeeper -- allocate more money to safeguarding bees than rescuing people during the heat wave, the program asked. How did his construction-magnate wife come to earn billions of dollars to become the country's richest woman?
More attacks on other channels followed, criticizing Luzhkov for Moscow’s legendary traffic jams and profiting from the demolition of historic buildings to make way for new apartment complexes.
It would have signaled the immediate end for any other Russian politician, but Luzhkov is different. The Kremlin may want to replace the mayor, but he's not going without a fight.
Years of antagonisms have exploded in a bitter media battle that's providing a rare show of defiance to Russia’s normally all-powerful authoritarian regime. But few are giving Luzhkov any chances to prevail. The real question, analysts say, is how long he'll remain in office and who will succeed him. Fighting Back
In an interview on independent REN-TV this week, the stocky 74-year-old mayor called the accusations against him "dirt" and vowed not to leave office until the end of his term next year.
"Justifying yourself isn't the way to defend yourself in Russia," he said. "When someone starts excusing himself, it means he's guilty of something."
The city legislature rallied behind the mayor, unanimously passing a motion of support on September 15. It was an unusual display of insubordination to the Kremlin, coming after President Dmitry Medvedev slammed Luzhkov for opposing his decision to suspend the building of a controversial highway though a protected forest.
“Officials should either participate in building institutions or join the opposition,” Medvedev said.
Segei Mironov, speaker of parliament’s upper house, accused Luzhkov of having “lost all sense of reality.” Long History
Still, Luzhkov is no ordinary politician, and this isn’t the first time he’s waged an all-out battle with the Kremlin on the country’s television screens. In early 1999, the mayor was widely expected to succeed ailing President Boris Yeltsin, who was deeply unpopular for the massive corruption and economic crisis crippling the country.
President Dmitry Medvedev (left) and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov: Little boy in a sandbox?
In a last-ditch effort, the Kremlin waged a desperate smear campaign against Luzhkov and his allies, backing a series of television programs that accused the mayor of fraud, corruption, and murder. At the same time, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s candidate, launched a second war in Chechnya that prompted his negligible approval ratings to soar.
By the end of the year, there had been a stunning reversal of fortune. Sensing the winner-takes-all nature of the struggle, Luzhkov backed down. He hung on to his job by supporting Putin and allowing his party to be swallowed by the Kremlin's United Russia.
Thus began a decade of uneasy coexistence. Luzhkov occasionally sparred with the Kremlin over the years, but rumors of his demise never materialized. The populist mayor who often appears in his trademark leather cap was useful to Putin for his skill at keeping Muscovites happy while managing a sprawling, corrupt city that accounts for around one-fifth of the country’s GDP.
Luzhkov became unique in Russia for his position as a powerful politician independent of the Kremlin, even after Putin changed the law in 2005 to abolish regional elections in favor of Kremlin appointments. Television War
Former Moscow Mayor Gavril Popov, whom Luzhkov succeeded in 1992, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the Kremlin is staging an unprecedented attack against Luzhkov now because it’s desperate. He says the country’s rulers want to distract Russians from their inability to deal with a series of recent disasters, including the global financial crisis and the fires that made thousands homeless last summer.
"It’s a method commonly used under the Soviet system,” he said. “Find people to call enemies of the people and blame them for all the country’s problems."
Popov believes the campaign to force Luzhkov to resign won’t succeed. The mayor is staging a spirited counterattack, filing lawsuits against many media outlets for libel, a tactic he's often used in the past.
As the battle escalates daily, many are questioning why Medvedev doesn’t simply use his power to fire Luzhkov. Prime Minister Putin, whom Russians see as the country’s supreme leader, hasn’t weighed in on the controversy, leading some to speculate over a split, even a power struggle between him and his protégé Medvedev.
Luzhkov was severely criticized for vacationing in Austria while Muscovites dealt with the effects of the deadly forest fires.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, who last year published a report accusing Luzhkov of massive corruption, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that Medvedev is orchestrating the campaign because he’s upset with Luzhkov.
"He’s acting like a little boy in a sandbox who’s been insulted and is trying to throw sand back in people's eyes,” he said. “It looks idiotic and amateurish, and from a journalistic point of view crude. Instead of investigating Luzhkov's corruption and removing him from power, he's setting up an information war."
But others believe Putin and Medvedev are acting in concert. Political analyst Kirill Rogov says the mayor is simply the last in a series of Yeltsin-era regional leaders the Kremlin has steadily been replacing as it continues to consolidate power ahead of a presidential election scheduled for 2012.
"It's a little more difficult with Luzhkov,” he says, “because he decided not to oppose Putin in the presidential election in 2000. Putin owes him for that and probably gave him guarantees. But if he can’t attack Luzhkov, Medvedev can. It's not a political split, just a difference in tactical roles."
But Rogov says by fighting back, Luzhkov has been able to exploit a rivalry among powerful groups who wield influence in the Kremlin.
"The real conflict is not over firing Luzhkov,” he says, “but who will replace him. One group wants to put its own person in his position right away, but others aren’t sure they want to strengthen that group because the Moscow mayor is a very important prize."
Russian media have listed several possible contenders, including deputy prime ministers Sergei Sobyanin and Sergei Ivanov. But just like during the Cold War, Kremlin watchers can only speculate about rival groups’ maneuverings in the tightly closed environment of Russia’s autocracy.
One thing is clear. With reports of more televised criticism to come Luzhkov’s way, few are predicting the mayor will remain in office long. But Rogov says it's impossible to tell exactly how the conflict will play out. The Kremlin will show weakness by failing to remove Luzhkov soon. But if it succeeds, the result may widen the cracks within the ruling elite.
The open media battle, he says, shows no final strategy has been decided.
RFE/RL’s Russian Service contributed to this report