Moscow, 8 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Russian media commentators faced a huge dilemma at the weekend, to decide which event would have priority in broadcasts as the main focus of the last seven days. The tragic death and the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, coincided with three days of festivities commemorating Moscow's 850th anniversary. Diana diverted the attention of many Russians and elderly Muscovites from the Moscow extravaganza.
Sixty-six-year-old Maria, a retired teacher, was transfixed in front of her television screen in a village some 40 kilometers from Moscow, told our correspondent Saturday that "Diana was a real, sweet, lovely person and I do cry as if I had lost my own daughter. The Moscow carnival for me is just a paternalistic attempt to revive our old Soviet-era parades, and I never took part in pseudo-celebrations like this."
The Princess died in a car crash in Paris August 31, and the hugely emotional and public coverage of the tragedy culminated in the televised funeral Saturday. It was viewed by more than 2 billion people worldwide. Moscow's lavish three-day party, whose main organizer and star was the city's ambitious Mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, started Friday and ended only yesterday evening with fireworks and concerts on Red Square and at the newly refurbished Luzhniki stadium.
But on television broadcasts reaching all corners of Russia, pictures of grief in London and images of overwhelming joy during the carefully planned Moscow celebrations provided viewers with the sharp contrasts that only television coverage can create. If TV Center, the television network launched in June with financing of the city of Moscow, chose to focus on the Moscow celebrations, other media commentators underlined that for many other Russians, particularly outside the capital, that Diana's death had captured everybody's attention.
Months of frantic preparation in the Russian capital paid off and most of the weekend's events, including dancing, singing and speeches celebrating the city and its mayor, went off without a hitch. About three million people flocked into Moscow's streets over the three days of celebrations, bringing the city center and metro stations to a gleeful standstill. At night, the Russian capital, home to 11 million strong, resembled more a gigantic discotheque then the former gray Soviet stereotype. Saturday night, about two million people packed the streets to watch a laser, sound-and-light performance by French composer Jean Michel Jarre on Moscow's Lenin Hills.
Commentators pointed out that the "people's party," masterminded by Luzhkov to be the guiding light of his term in office, has clearly provided the Mayor the platform for his ambitious and expected bid to become Russia's next president.
Luzhkov has been synonymous with Moscow since he became mayor five years ago, and set about bringing the city into modern times after decades of communism. Many citizens and observers agree that Luzhkov can take credit for changing the face of Moscow, encouraging building and reconstruction efforts, trying to improve public services and fixing damaged roads. Many also say that, after he won more than 90 percent of the popular vote in last year's mayoral election, Luzhkov has great plans not only for Moscow, but also for his personal political future. During the Moscow celebrations, Luzhkov once again denied that he wants to become president, but literally no Russian observer seemed to believe him.
Former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar said yesterday that the Moscow anniversary was "a demonstration of Luzhkov's political and financial possibilities, and undoubtedly a very good start for his presidential campaign."
The astonishing beautification effort, initiated and controlled by city officialds in preparation for the anniversary celebrations during the last few months, are seen also as an expression of Luzhkov's economic vision. According to several analysts, Luzhkov's command-and-control, free-market style is a hybrid of the Soviet-era command system and the free-market, aimed at eventually giving the city and its mayor control of every business activity.
Critics and also many economists say that, beneath the appearance of prosperity, the city government's control over Moscow businesses has led to wasted resources, little effective management and overwhelming corruption, including among city officials. The Moscow government has built a public entrepreneurial activity, whose interests include real estate, media, banking, oil and communication assets. Western analysts in Moscow say that the city's role of regulator, but also of entrepreneur, discourages competition and has contributed to making Moscow the world's third most expensive city.
An economist with the World bank, Aleksandr Morozov, told the English language "Moscow Times" recently that despite Luzhkov's clear achievements, "Moscow could be doing a lot better, considering its privileged position" as Russia's financial and political center. He said Moscow controls 80 percent of Russia's financial resources, and "even with their ineffective use, results can be achieved."
Russian media estimated that the city spent more than $50 million on the celebrations.
Maria Nikolaevna, in her village outside Moscow said, "if the city is so rich, it could give some more funding to help pensioners and other poor people, who are not in shortage around here."
President Boris Yeltsin said during the week-end celebrations that Luzhkov "is a man who knows the meaning of the word victory," and is ready to do anything to achieve it. As if to prove the point, when storm clouds threatened to spoil this weekend's party, Lushkov dispatched cloud-seeding planes to ensure clear skies.