First let's start with what it is not.
Luzhkov's removal was not, as some media have reported, a sign of a split in the ruling tandem. And it was most certainly not, at least as far as I can see, a "victory" for President Dmitry Medvedev over Prime Minister (and national leader) Vladimir Putin.
It seems pretty clear at this point that Putin was on board with the decision to sack the Moscow mayor. I think Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center got it right, as he usually does, in his article in Thursday's Moscow Times."
"It is uncertain who is actively opposing Luzhkov," Petrov wrote. "But it is obviously an alliance of influential forces and not Medvedev operating alone." And it is inconceivable that this alliance did not include Putin.
As Petrov notes, Putin was probably less enthusiastic about removing Luzhkov, not on principle, but rather because he feared the instability that could result from such a move:
Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky makes a similar argument in a recent interview with Ekho Moskvy (listen here):
Indeed, in a post last week, I compared Putin's personnel policy to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev's "stability of cadres" policy. That approach, which followed the terror of the Stalin era and the bureaucratic chaos that marked the rule of Nikita Krushchev, offered the elite a simple deal -- be loyal and obedient to the Kremlin and there will be no purges. Play by the rules and keep your job.
After the chaos of the 1990s, Putin needed a stability of cadres approach to build his power vertical. But now the regime's requirements (like Medvedev's modernization agenda) require an infusion of fresh talent. (Those perestroika -era parallels just won't go away!)
As "Vedomosti" noted in an editorial this week, Medvedev has replaced a startling 34 regional leaders since taking office in May 2008. (That's an average of more than one per month!). And he has removed some heavyweights.
In March 2009 he replaced Oryol Governor Yegor Stroyev and Murmansk leader Yury Yevdokimov. Longtime Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel retired in November 2009. Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyutka and Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiyev stepped down in January. Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov announced his retirement in July.
And of course there was the once untouchable Luzhkov, who was outright fired after refusing to go quietly.
And Medvedev also made some out-of-the box picks, most notably erstwhile opposition figure Nikita Belykh in Kirov Oblast.
"The impression is that renovation of the gubernatorial corps was an element of the pact made by Putin and Medvedev," Vedomosti wrote.
It does appear, however, that the decision to remove Luzhkov was opposed by Putin's powerful Deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin.
As I have blogged here, rather than looking for signs of conflict between Putin and Medvedev, it makes more sense to look at the rivalry between Medvedev and Sechin -- who represent the rival technocratic and siloviki wings of Putin's team.
So if Medvedev scored a political victory here, it was most likely against Sechin. But as political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky notes, there is still another important act that needs to play out in this drama -- the selection of a candidate to replace Luzhkov.
“What really matters is who the next mayor is,” political analyst Vladimir Pribylovsky told "Moscow News" this week. “If it’s someone from the Sechin camp, then this would be just as unfavorable for Medvedev.”
And this is where things could get messy.
In his interview with Ekho Moskvy, Belkovsky said the real reason a critical mass of the Kremlin elite wanted Luzhkov out was to get control of the financial empire he controls:
The financial industrial groups have decided to take over Moscow because for a long time they have thought that it is unfair that a man from the past, not organically linked with today's federal elite, is in charge of these enormous economic resources.
Putin is scheduled to meet tonight with the Moscow branch of the ruling United Russia party to settle on a list of candidates.
And we're about to see which clan will get control of those resources and how well the Kremlin has planned the transition. We are also about to see if Putin's alleged concerns about the instability that could result from removing Luzhkov was warranted.
-- Brian Whitmore