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 in March.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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