All the President’s Men? Inside the Kremlin’s Moscow Problem

Yuri Luzhkov.jpg

Former Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov (center) with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev

Poor Yuri Luzhkov. He can’t keep his mouth shut. Just when it seemed that the fall-out from his abrupt dismissal in late September as Moscow’s mayor had begun to dissipate, Luzhkov gave an interview on CNN in which he once more attacked Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the man who fired him: “Unfortunately, we’ve seen a whole set of circumstances happening in the country on Medvedev’s watch—calamities, terrorist acts, bad harvest and so on. These kinds of things don’t contribute to the tangible results of his work as the President.”

Of course, Luzhkov has a right to be bitter. After 18 years in office he was fired, according to the official version, because of “loss of confidence by the president of Russia.” (In the Russian Federation, provincial governors, including the mayor of Moscow, are appointed directly by and answer to the Russian president.) Luzhkov’s dismissal was apparently provoked by his outspoken criticism of the Kremlin; but as Russian journalist Yevgenia Albats pointed out, “There was not a word of explanation, either from the president’s side or the side of Prime Minister Putin, as to what he did to lose confidence.” Albats, who is editor of the weekly journal New Times, conducted a three-hour interview with Luzhkov, who told her that, contrary to the usual practice, the president’s office did not offer him some sort of face-saving alternative post. Sergei Naryshkin, the head of the presidential administration, simply told him he had to go quietly and that, if he did not, they would “go after” him and his wife, the billionaire construction magnate Elena Baturina—presumably with a corruption investigation.

Why was the Russian president so hard on Luzhkov? Was it because of his appalling record as the mayor of this city of over ten million? A recent independent report on Luzhkov’s administration entitled Luzhkov. Itogi. 2 (Luzhkov: The Results. 2) provides some insight. According to the report, which was written by Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov, leaders of a democratic opposition party: “Corruption in Moscow permeates all spheres of life, from bribes of high-ranking officials to policemen, bribes to get children into schools and universities, for treatment in clinics and hospitals.” The most egregious example of such corruption, they argue, is Luzhkov: “In the last ten years, Luzhkov has signed dozens of regulations that give his wife the right to develop land in Moscow.” In addition, a deal that allowed Baturina to acquire Moscow’s formerly government-run manufacturer of prefabricated houses gave her “control of about 20 percent of the housing market,” turning the couple into billionaires.

This corruption has had a devastating effect on Moscow’s quality of life. Nemtsov and Milov note that Moscow’s murder rate is five times that of other European cities, while air pollution—exacerbated by the city’s notorious traffic—has resulted in a prevalence of cancer and respiratory diseases that is 1.5 to 3 times greater than elsewhere in Russia. As the authors point out, the British rating agency Mercer ranked Moscow as the most expensive city in the world in 2008 (by 2010 it had dropped to fourth most expensive)—with an astounding 42 percent gap in income between the richest 10 percent and the poorest 10 percent. Mercer also ranked Moscow 171st in its measure of quality of life and urban infrastructure—putting it on par with Harare and Lagos. (As of 2010 it had risen slightly to 166th.)

Nor are Nemtsov and Milov the only ones to raise alarms about the activities of this famous Russian couple, who own a vast chalet in Kitzbuhl, Austria, along with a five-star hotel and golf course there, a large mansion in London and a fleet of luxury cars that rivals that of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov (another Kremlin appointee). Indeed, a poll conducted among Moscow residents in December 2009 by Russia’s Levada Center revealed that almost 50 percent of the respondents thought Luzhkov should be fired for corruption and investigated by law enforcement agencies.

Still, Luzhkov’s dismissal probably had little to do with his corruption and mismanagement, to which the Kremlin has turned a blind eye for years. Although the corruption issue did give the Kremlin leverage, the more likely reason is Luzhkov’s decision to take sides in the apparent struggle between the Medvedev and Putin camps over who will be the candidate for the Russian presidency in 2012. (As has been widely noted, Putin has not ruled out another run for the presidency, leaving in doubt his support for Medvedev’s reelection.) Over the past few months Medvedev has been encouraged by his supporters to go beyond his cautious statements about “modernization” in challenging the status quo approach of his mentor, Putin. Part of his strategy has been to dismiss some of the old-guard apparatchiks (including several governors of Russia’s regions) who rose to prominence in the Yeltsin era.


According to analysts in Moscow, as a member of this old guard, Luzhkov didn’t like Medvedev’s new decisiveness and took the bold step in the late summer of openly criticizing him. This was a fatal mistake. He underestimated the resolve of Medvedev and his allies (who fought back with a media campaign that tainted Luzhkov and his wife with corruption, paving the way for his dismissal) and over-estimated Putin’s support for him. Asked in the CNN interview if he was disappointed in Putin’s failure to intervene on his behalf, Luzhkov acknowledged: “I was surprised.”

If Medvedev had not mustered the political will to fire Luzhkov, he would have had no chance of getting re-elected to the Russian presidency in 2012. In order to be a credible alternative to the tough and decisive Putin, he had to stand up to Luzhkov’s insubordination. Now he is still in the running, but that does not mean that he is powerful enough to initiate a criminal investigation of the former mayor. And he probably does not want to anyway, even if Luzhkov continues to take swipes at him. As Michael Bohm has pointed out in the Moscow Times, the last thing either Putin or Medvedev wants is “for Luzhkov to reveal the extent of corruption at the highest levels of government. Luzhkov understood that the tandem was backed into a corner on the issue, which helps explains his intransigence and hubris in the month-long public showdown with Medvedev before his firing.”

Leaders of the Moscow branch of the United Russia Party, which dominates the Moscow parliament (and won substantial victories yesterday in several of Russia’s regional elections) have handed over to President Medvedev a list of four candidates to consider as Luzhkov’s replacement. The most likely choice is Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Sobyanin. Although he works for Putin and is perceived by some analysts as a Putin loyalist, he also maintains good relations with Medvedev, who appointed him as his presidential campaign manager in 2007, so he will not necessarily take sides in the Medvedev-Putin rivalry that is bound to become more intense as the presidential elections approach.

Whoever the new mayor is, he will be much more tightly controlled by the Kremlin leadership than the free-wheeling Luzhkov was. And that is a big plus for President Medvedev. Luzhkov got away with a lot largely because he was able to ensure—many say by fraudulent election practices that seem to be prevalent all over Russia—that Putin’s party, United Russia, achieved huge electoral majorities. (Medvedev is not formally a member of United Russia, though he had the party’s backing when he ran for the presidency in 2008.) Now there is talk in Moscow about splits within United Russia and even the possibility of Medvedev starting his own political movement. For the moment, it is just talk, even whispers. But in the closed world of the Kremlin, which preserves its legitimacy by not airing political differences publicly, this is already a significant change. For that we have Yuri Luzhkov and his big mouth to thank.

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