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Russia: Moscow Mayor Enjoys Support In Moscow As His Party Slips In Polls

With parliamentary elections this weekend, the pro-Kremlin party supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has surged ahead, with some polls saying it has more support than even the Communist Party. RFE/RL correspondent Tuck Wesolowsky reports from Moscow on where that leaves the party of former Kremlin ally -- and now Kremlin foe -- Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Moscow, 16 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- In 1996, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin was running for re-election, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov was one of his biggest supporters. The Kremlin too was fond of Luzhkov, praising him regularly for his efforts to transform drab Moscow into a glimmering showcase of a reborn Russia.

But where once Luzhkov and Yeltsin routinely showered one another with praise, today the two men sling mud at each other helped along by an obliging media loyal to one or the other camps.

The bad blood between Yeltsin and Luzhkov can be seen through the prism of a classic power struggle. Luzhkov has near saint-like status among many Muscovites, who credit him with "getting things done" like paying pensions and salaries on time, and upgrading the city's rickety infrastructure. And when he teamed up with former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov -- who is also no friend of the Kremlin, allegedly for his tough stance on corruption, but is popular with a sizable chunk of the public -- many pundits were predicting a bright future for their bloc, "Fatherland-All Russia" or OVR.

With Yeltsin due to step down after presidential elections next year, Yeltsin supporters -- such as controversial business magnate Boris Berezovsky -- looked on nervously as Fatherland-All Russia grew in popularity, and scrambled to put together their own political "movement," named "Unity." The pro-Kremlin Unity group is headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, but has grown in popularity given the tacit support of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is riding a wave of popularity due to his "tough" stance on Chechnya.

With no political platform to speak of, Unity is nevertheless riding on Putin's coattails, rocketing upward in the opinion polls, while the Luzhkov-Primakov bloc slowly sinks. Or that's what the polls say. But many polls in Russia are biased and therefore do not truly reflect voter preference.

Either way, the future for both blocs depends to a large degree on the outcome of Sunday's parliamentary poll. Luzhkov himself is also up for re-election, facing former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko -- who is allied with the Kremlin-friendly Union of Rightist Forces -- in a race most analysts predict he should win easily.

At a Moscow rally Tuesday night, Luzkhov told an estimated crowd of 75,000 Fatherland-All Russia supporters that the Kremlin fears him and his bloc.

"They're afraid of our rally, because we've gathered here, all together, stating that we should -- all together, and our country --change our life and the principles of government."

To guard against possible unspecified "provocations," thousands of Moscow police and Interior Ministry troops ringed the gathering and blocked streets leading to Vasilyevsky Spusk, a small square on the southern edge of Red Square where the rally was held. Our correspondent says police blocked many Muscovites from attending the demonstration; those allowed through were mostly members of Moscow trade unions, which organized the event.

The heavy police presence underscores just how palpably tense the Russian capital has become ahead of this Sunday's election.

The tension has been cultivated by the ongoing namecalling, reported and distorted by a willing media. The ORT television network -- allegedly controlled by Unity supporter Berezovksy -- has been at the forefront in fanning rumor and scandal attacking Luzhkov.

One of the more damning charges aired on ORT has been allegations that Luzhkov obstructed the investigation into the 1996 murder of a U.S. businessman (Paul Tatum). The network's controversial commentator, Sergei Dorenko, has suggested Luzhkov ordered the slaying of the man, who was involved in a struggle for control of a Moscow hotel partially controlled by Luzhkov's municipal government. Dorenko, echoing sentiment in the Kremlin, dismissed Tuesday's rally, labeling it a staged event and accusing Luzhkov of busing in supporters to take part.

But many Muscovites, and of course all those attending the rally, stand behind their mayor. One of them is 58-year-old Valery Pavlovich, a self-described small businessman. He credits Luzhkov for more than competently running Moscow, a city of eight million.

"I think you can vote for Luzhkov for many reasons. First, Moscow is a city of eight million people, that's a fair-sized government, all state organs and workers receive their funds on time, teachers, nurses, and doctors. All pensioners receive their payments; there are about two million [pensioners] in Moscow."

He also credited Luzhkov for modernizing the outer "ring road," a highway circling Moscow. The alarming number of accidents over the years had given the highway the nickname "road of death."

The businessman's views are echoed by 27-year-old Roman Gusov, a member of the Moscow Municipal Trade Union Confederation.

"We believe in our work; we looked at the rest of the candidates, and we don't see anyone better, no one. This [Luzhkov] is the best candidate for us now. Maybe in Europe there are better candidates living there. In Japan the government collapses because of some type of small scandal, that would never happen here. But, nevertheless, the man is trying to do something."

Whether Luzhkov will get a chance to do "something" on the larger Russian scene could be decided to a large degree on Sunday. The latest polls show support for his Fatherland-All Russia party dipping under 10 percent, with the Communists at around 18 percent and Unity, by some accounts, above 20 percent. Parties that win more than five percent of the vote gain seats in parliament.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.