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Russia: The Presidential Ambitions Of Moscow's Mayor--An Analysis

Moscow, 15 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - Despite the fact that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov denies he has presidential ambitions, observers in Moscow agree Luzhkov is forming the financial and media-image base he needs to launch a campaign.

A political analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Nikolay Petrov, was recently quoted in the media as saying Luzhkov could be "the only self-sufficient candidate" in the next presidential election, having "combined everything that is necessary: money, media, image."

Luzhkov -- like the city he governs -- has a dual image.

Luzhkov is keen to present himself as a strong and talented capitalist -- but, with "a Slavic face." His strategy paid off last year, when Luzhkov was re-elected with more than 90 percent of the vote, while a communist challenger polled a mere four percent.

In an apparent effort to mount a nationwide self-promotion campaign, Luzhkov has embraced populist and nationalist issues. He is one of the most vocal supporters of the controversial Union Treaty, and Belarus' hardline President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Luzhkov has also stated often and loudly that the city of Sevastopol, on Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, "was, is and will be Russian forever." Luzhkov also recently set up a city department to establish and maintains links with Russian Federation regions, and also with ethnic Russian communities outside the Federation, to provide support and financial aid.

However, with three years left before the next presidential election (scheduled in 2000), it is still unclear how things will develop. Despite Luzhkov's steps to extend his appeal outside the capital, opinion polls indicate the Moscow Mayor is still making a weak showing in nationwide polls. Observers say the disdain for "rich and greedy Moscow" in Russian's provinces, plays a role.

To raise his rating, Luzhkov has slammed the Cabinet's new team of perceived reformers, particularly, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, also tipped as a strong presidential candidate. Nemtsov, a former provincial governor in Nizhny Novgorod, a city that commentators termed "the showcase of Russia's successful economic reform," is extremely popular nationwide.

Nemtsov, who is often seen as Yeltsin's "hand-picked heir apparent," was expected to enjoy the support of the main financial-industrial groups, until this Summer, when a huge scandal developed over the sale of stakes in Russia's monopoly telecommunications company, Svyazinvest. The deal marked the government's first attempt to depart from the loans-for-shares privatization scheme, adopting a practice of more open and transparent tenders. Losers in the tender were some of Yeltsin's key supporters in last year's elections: two powerful industrial-media-banking tycoons with Kremlin ties, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky.

Recently, they have openly warned Nemtsov that, if he does not consider the interests of the business community, he may have little chance of enjoying its support for the next presidential election.

But Luzhkov is in a even more controversial position than Nemtsov when it comes to dealing with the financial clans. Luzhkov is seen as much as a financial competitor as a politician.

Gusinsky, long an ally of Luzhkov, recently said he and the Mayor "had not greeted each other for the last four months," as they had quarreled over the privatization of Moscow's cinemas network.

For the moment Russia's business community seems to be divided over the choice of a candidate for what is called here "the party of power" for the next presidential election. Other important tenders -- a second stake of Svyazinvest, the oil integrated company Rosneft and others expected this Autumn, might give further hints of the financiers' mood.

Analysts have recently said Luzhkov would have few real chances to become president, if he did not obain the clear support of the influential financial-political clans. And, they also believe a Luzhkov's candidacy could split the non-Communist, non-nationalist vote, increasing the chances of a candidate backed by extremists.

For the moment, Luzhkov says Muscovites are so pleased with his leadership that they would not agree for him to run for president. And, some observers say Moscow could barely function without the strong, influential hand of its current boss.