It's hard to imagine Moscow being run by anybody but Yury Luzhkov. But then again, it was hard to imagine Tatarstan being run by anybody other than Mintimer Shaimiyev
-- until, of course, somebody else was running it.
The Kremlin has made it crystal clear that it wants to sweep out the old guard of regional leaders, and has been systematically replacing them over the past year.
Last March, Oryol Oblast's Yegor Stroyev
and Murmansk Oblast's Yury Yevdokimov
were removed from office. Longtime Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel
retired in November. Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyuta
stepped down in January after 13 years in power, followed by Shaimiyev's retirement
And with Luzhkov being the heaviest of the heavyweights still standing, speculation
has long been mounting
that he too is on his way out.
Luzhkov, moreover, has just had a pretty terrible couple of weeks. On Tuesday, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the bombastic nationalist LDPR leader unleashed a public broadside
against the Moscow mayor from the floor of the State Duma, accusing him of widespread corruption
and of allowing lucrative properties to fall into the hands of foreigners:
Until we restore order in the capital, it will be hard to defeat corruption on the scale of the whole country...For this the government of Moscow needs to be removed. In full, all of it. And mayor Luzhkov must be fired on the basis of no confidence, since he will never hand in his notice of his own free will. This man must not be trusted any more.
Zhirinovsky made his comments in the presence of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who had just delivered an address to the Duma reporting on the government's work.
Putin's laconic response, which provoked laughter in the chamber, seemed to rebuke Zhirinovsky, albeit gently, but was actually a pretty deadly swipe at Luzhkov as well:
Regarding the colleagues' very strong criticism of Moscow, we are not discussing Moscow today, to be sure, but it was said that it is a corrupt government, that they have stolen everything. Then Vladimir Volfovich (Zhirinovskiy) said that Luzhkov wants to give the juiciest chunks to people from abroad. What do you mean, Luzhkov wants to give away the juiciest bits? Can you imagine it? Luzhkov wanting to give away the juiciest chunks to anyone, abroad or here? I think that Vladimir Volfovich is mistaken.
Since the Kremlin often uses Zhirinovsky to float messages and ideas, it would not be surprising at all if the whole exchange with Putin was actually staged in an effort to embarrass Luzhkov.
The tag-team attack on the Moscow mayor, moreover, came shortly after the Public Chamber
sharply criticized the city's development plan. Luzhkov has also come under fire for his plans to display posters
of Soviet leader Josef Stalin during celebrations next month marking the 65th anniversary of the end of World War II.
In a recent report, Danila Galperovich
of RFE/RL's Russian Service asked politicians and experts whether they thought Luzhkov was truly on the way out (You can listen to the report in Russian here
Boris Nemtsov of the opposition Solidarity movement and a longtime critic of the Moscow mayor thinks Luzhkov's days are indeed numbered:
Corruption has reached such levels in Moscow that Putin can no longer pretend not to notice it. On the other hand, Luzhkov is the basis for the system of thievery that has thrived under Putin -- and Putin is afraid to get rid of him. It seems to me that Luzhkov's fate is being discussed at the highest levels -- at the level of Putin and Medvedev. I don't rule out that that after the Victory Day celebrations, Luzhkov will be forced out.
But Nikolai Petrov, a specialist on Russia's regions at the Moscow Carnegie Center, was less certain, noting that Luzhkov's political obituary has been written several times in the past, only to see him hang on to power:
Luzhkov demonstrates a miraculous ability to survive. Despite endless rumors in the past about his imminent departure he is still in place and has already survived more than one president. I think he has a chance to survive through the autumn and into the next electoral cycle, when nobody would dare touch him.
There is little doubt in my mind that Putin and Medvedev would like to remove Luzhkov, who has been able to operate as a more-or-less independent player in the capital for nearly two decades -- annoying three successive presidents in the process.
The problem is that while Medvedev could get rid or Luzhkov with the stroke of a pen, replacing him could literally become a bloody mess. The struggle for control of post-Luzhkov Moscow would likely descend into a vicious struggle among Kremlin factions for control of the economically lucrative capital. It could be the mother of all Kremlin clan wars, which is surely giving Putin and Medvedev pause.
-- Brian Whitmore