Moscow, 22 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Not many Russian governors receive on their birthday congratulations and gifts from the Kremlin. The powerful Mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, does. And in these times of political and financial uncertainty, that is not by chance.
President Boris Yeltsin yesterday (Sept. 21) wished Luzhkov a happy 62nd birthday and Russian television channels showed him handling a large present wrapped in green paper. Hours later, Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov found time to travel to Moscow City Hall and personally give Luzhkov the present.
This comes at a moment when Primakov is busy putting the final touches on the lineup of his new government, which is supposed to take the country out of its worst crisis of the decade.
More than ever, Luzhkov wields huge financial and political clout not only in the Russian capital, but also nationwide. Analysts in Moscow say that the Kremlin's show of consideration is among other things a sign of fear, as it comes at the moment when populist, nationalist-leaning Luzhkov is openly sealing his ties with Yeltsin's communist foes.
Yeltsin's assertion that the Moscow mayor deserves a tribute seems to disguise a last-minute attempt to make a "non aggression pact" with Luzhkov, said one analyst who wished to remain anonymous.
Luzhkov has repeatedly denied having presidential ambitions, but many political forces in Moscow and across Russia see him as a likely presidential candidate in 2000, when the next presidential vote is scheduled. He could also be a candidate in any early election.
The Russian constitution foresees a long and complicated procedure for the president's impeachment, but the communist-dominated State Duma is stepping up its efforts in this direction. Nationwide protests at the beginning of October are set to take place under the banner "Yeltsin step down." Meanwhile, Luzhkov and communist leader Gennady Zyuganov in the last few days have made known that their positions are growing closer.
In a move very similar to previous communist demands, Luzhkov has urged Primakov to re-nationalize same former state companies, adding that the architects of privatization schemes, as well as officials involved in investment pyramid schemes, should be put on trial.
On Sept. 19 Zyuganov openly praised Luzhkov at the end of a communist party leadership meeting. He said he was pleased to see that "in the present crisis situation, Luzhkov has assumed positions aimed at strengthening order in the country." Using a Soviet-era term -- for those who are not party members, but are close to party positions -- Zyuganov added that people like Luzhkov are considered by the communists as "poputchiki", or fellow-travelers.
The daily "Kommersant" reports that yesterday Luzhkov agreed that his goals do, indeed coincide with those of the communists. The daily quoted him as saying that "this is not a casually coinciding situation."
Luzhkov has the reputation of a manager who gets things done. In important matters, such as dealing with his own political future, the Moscow mayor does not usually limit action to a mere declaration of intentions. One of his closest allies, general Andrei Nikolaev, is reportedly already working to widen the political platform that could bring Luzhkov to power.
Yeltsin fired Nikolaev from his post of Border Guards Service chief earlier this year. The ambitious general, reportedly with Luzhkov's backing, soon obtained a deputy's seat in the State Duma and created a political movement, the "Union of People's Power and Labor," that in a matter of only few months has already forged alliances with 12 centrist and left political organizations.
Nikolaev's movement recently signed a protocol aimed at coordinating activities with the communist-led "Popular and Patriotic Union."
Yesterday Nikolaev said that other parties, including the communist-leaning Agrarians, will soon officially join the alliance. He also announced that his plans for the next parliamentary elections --scheduled for 1999-- include the creation of a wide bloc, that would become, in his words, The "party of the majority."
Nikolaev said that, if such a bloc will emerge, it is very likely that its common candidate for the presidential vote be Luzhkov. According to Nikolaev, Luzhkov "fits both centrist and leftist schemes, as he represents the interests of the majority of the population."
However, "Kommersant," quoting unnamed communist Duma deputies, said Nikolaev's predictions do not take into account that most communist legislators would like to see their leader, Zyuganov, as the common candidate for the next presidential election. Analysts say that much depends on when the vote would take place. If the election date remains unchanged, they say, it is likely that Luzhkov will have enough time to bring most communist deputies to his side. In case of early elections, a power-fight among the "fellow-travelers" could easily break out.
Until the present financial crisis started biting hard in the capital, sweeping away savings and leaving the emerging middle-class jobless, Moscow had stood as the symbol of coming abundance. Moscow salaries were 65 percent above the national average, everything was outrageously expensive, but people were saying that "what is important is that everything was available."
With some 80 percent of foreign investment concentrated in the capital and most banking and financial resources located there, Luzhkov had no trouble collecting precious tax and other revenues for the city budget. And he was lavishly spending on controversial construction projects like the Cathedral of Christ The Savior or the monument to Peter the Great.
Muscovites, who in 1996 re-elected him with 90 percent of the vote, are now anxious that the capital could end up looking like more deprived places abounding across Russia. They would most likely support the Moscow mayor in a possible presidential run, thinking that this would bring them a better future. Other Russians, wary of Moscow's success so far, would have to be convinced that the Moscow mayor could be able to bring some improvement of their situation.
Luzhkov, who has been skillfully building up alliances with regional governors, has proposed to Primakov to change Russia's federal structure, reducing the number of subjects of the federation from 89 to 12. The move, if implemented, would effectively decrease the number of regional bosses whose support he would need, but Primakov is seen as unlikely to agree to the proposal.
Luzhkov's critics also indicate two points that opponents could use against the Moscow mayor. Luzhkov has been criticized by human rights organizations and by many Russians for his maintenance of Soviet-era practices, like the Moscow residency permit, or propiska. The Constitutional Court twice instructed Moscow authorities to abolish the propiska, but Luzhkov told officials to disregard the rulings.
Others underline that Luzhkov, far from being an ordinary politician who is counting on businesses support to finance his political initiatives, is himself a full-fledged member of Russia's so-called "oligarchy" and he would have trouble finding the support of other members of the same category.
Luzhkov's financial and industrial resources include telecommunications, television and printed media assets, car, electronics and food-processing factories, refineries and dozens of filling stations. With "this kind of incredible resources," writes the Moscow Times newspaper, Luzhkov can only be considered an oligarch who is "well ahead of the pack," as he is "the only oligarch who holds elected office."