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Analysis & Opinion
24.09.10 Will Moscow’s Mayor Be Fired?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Ethan Burger, Alexandre Strokanov

The pressure is mounting on President Dmitry Medvedev to fire Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who for reasons known only to himself decided to engage in public polemics with the Kremlin and has even sought to drive a wedge between Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Yet the risks for Medvedev in firing Luzhkov are not insignificant – he is still relatively popular, and it is a dicey bet whether United Russia or its presidential candidate would win a fair election in Moscow without Luzhkov's voting machine. Will Medvedev fire Luzhkov, or will he keep the mayor in his job until his term expires in 2011?

Two weeks ago, mayor Luzhkov overstepped the acceptable bounds of his media appearances when he allowed himself to ridicule the president's decisions (particularly the suspension of the highway construction through the Khimki Forest) and sought to position himself as immune from Medvedev's power under prime minister Putin's protection.

The Kremlin almost immediately struck back, as if it had been waiting for a suitable pretext to launch a campaign to unseat the mayor, who has been in this job for nearly 20 years. Federal television channels launched a character assassination campaign against Luzhkov and his billionaire wife Yelena Baturina, starting with corruption in the Moscow City government and ending with an expos? of the couple's lavish lifestyle at their sprawling estate near Moscow.

Luzhkov hit back with libel suits against the media outlets and threatened the Kremlin with taking away the Moscow City branch of the United Russia party. He defiantly proclaimed that he would not resign voluntarily and had no intention of asking the president whether he continued to enjoy the president's confidence. He also sought prime minister Putin's support but is yet to secure a private meeting with the latter.

Luzhkov has been under heavy criticism for his style of running Moscow in the last six months. It is as if the Kremlin had been preparing the public for the mayor's inevitable departure from the scene just as the Kremlin had eased out other well-entrenched old time governors, like the presidents of the republics of Tatarstan, Bashkorkostan, Kalmykia, and the governors of the Volgograd and Rostov Regions.

The Russian elites have been abuzz with rumors that the Kremlin has decided to replace the Moscow mayor before the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2011 and 2012. Some media outlets are openly speculating that Luzhkov's days are numbered and that the decision to replace him has already been taken by president Medvedev, who was miffed by Luzhkov's open insubordination.

Medvedev is in a difficult position. If he fails to fire Luzhkov after such a public scorching of the mayor's reputation, he will look like a weak president and open himself up for more insubordination.

Yet the risks for Medvedev in firing Luzhkov are not insignificant. The media criticism does not accurately reflect the popular mood toward the mayor by ordinary Muscovites. He may have forfeited the trust of the educated elites, but he obviously still enjoys a lot of popular support and would probably win an open and democratic election. It is a dicey bet whether United Russia or its presidential candidate would win a fair election in Moscow without Luzhkov's voting machine.

Will Medvedev fire Luzhkov, or will he keep the mayor in his job until his term expires in 2011? What are the advantages and disadvantages for Medvedev in removing Luzhkov now? What does this situation around Moscow's mayor say about the Russian system of quasi-appointed – quasi-elected governors? Has this episode exposed the system's weaknesses? What does this situation say about the prospects for the presidential election of 2012? Is this the first serious sign of the Russian elites taking sides between Medvedev and Putin in the forthcoming presidential race? Is this a sign of a split in the Russian ruling tandem?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, Inc.:

Yuri Luzhkov's 18 years of uninterrupted mayoral tenure are reminiscent of the mayors of Chicago – Richard J. Daley, who served for 21 years, and his son Richard M. Daley, who has announced his final term will end in 2011, 22 years after his first election. Curiously, Chicago is a sister city of Moscow. Some observers perceive temperamental similarities among the distinguished mayors of Chicago and Moscow. In Russia, such an uninterrupted tenure in office would be unconstitutional for the head of state, and one may question the propriety of such a long sequence of consecutive terms for any elected executive or legislator wielding political authority anywhere – the United States and Russia included. This consideration alone is good reason to replace the mayor of Moscow, whoever that person may be and regardless of other aspects of the situation.

Allegations of diverse administrative excesses in Moscow – even when not directly aimed at Luzhkov – have been heard for quite a long time; they are not new, although it is notable that this topic has gained broad prominence in the media at the present time. And there is indeed a broad move to change the leadership of major territorial subjects of the Russian Federation, whereby the generation of leaders who emerged in the early 1990s are retiring, ostensibly because of their age. This change is at least in some measure due to the inevitable march of time, although one supposes that in most cases there are also other factors at play.

It may be that some of the incumbents from the 1990s are reluctant to leave (for whatever reasons), and therefore political pressure from above becomes visible. This dynamic is not at all strange; most countries have many such episodes in their civic life.

Luzhkov's liabilities are not just the on-going controversy about the road through the Khimki Forest. There are other stories with a whiff of scandal that touch the Moscow City government, and can be laid at the doorstep of the mayor's office. The drama of the heavily over-budget, very behind-schedule restoration of the Bolshoi Theatre is one such episode, which even now has not been fully resolved in the opinion of many. Probing questions require answers, especially when the official political climate is promoting suppression of administrative corruption and an increase of transparency in the personal and family finances of senior officials.

Local commentators point out that the current mayor of Moscow is well past nominal retirement age and if reappointed could soon join a handful of American senators in the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest practicing politicians.

Thus, regardless of popularity and electability, time - which stops for no one - is making inevitable Luzhkov's career transition. One can suppose that there are politicians in the wings who are eagerly waiting for an opportunity to govern one of the world's most important capitals.

Luzhkov has much charisma and has evidently done good things for his city. Apparently, he is not concerned about darkening this record with a perceived reluctance to leave. But then, the example of Rome's Cincinnatus is not widely known or emulated in our stridently non-Classical cultures.

Ethan S. Burger, Senior Lecturer, Centre for Transnational Crime Prevention, Faculty of Law Innovation Campus, University of Wollongong, Australia:

One would think that most 74-year-old males with billionaire wives (or vice versa) would be eager to retire after long and strenuous careers so that they could travel, pursue hobbies, spend time with their spouses, children and grandchildren, or devote themselves to philanthropic activities. Needless to say, mayor Luzhkov is not a typical public servant.

Not only has the mayor lived a long, productive and vigorous life, he has risen from modest means to become a powerful individual, married to perhaps the wealthiest "self-made" woman in the world. In this respect, Luzhkov has few rivals, except perhaps the late Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos (who had been a head of state and not merely the mayor of a major city).

Were mayor Luzhkov to surrender power by resigning in the hope of avoiding a political confrontation, he and Yelena Baturina might find themselves enmeshed in numerous prolonged scandals. Just think of how much fun the Russian public would have discovering if Baturina had more pairs of shoes than Imelda Marcos. In Russia, public officials tend to undertake herculean efforts to hold onto power because they recognize that if they actually surrender their positions without arranging to maintain their influence behind a “curtain,” they face real risks that they may not be able to keep any of their ill-gotten gains.

Persons who have used their governmental positions for personal gain to obtain assets worth the equivalent of billions of dollars are likely to have left some paper trail for procurators in Russia or prosecutors abroad. Furthermore, it is doubtful that they could have engaged in wrongful activity without a number of people knowing about it. While such persons might also be subject to "kompromat," it is unlikely that all of them committed comparable transgressions and breaches of the public trust.

Personally, I think it would be a mistake for president Medvedev to fire Luzhkov at this stage. The decision might appear to be motivated by politics, rather than merited by the circumstances. If it turns out that Luzhkov merely gives up his position with no additional consequences, it will give rise to speculation as to Medvedev's and Putin's motivations.

Usually, it is difficult for the average person to appreciate the human toll of mega corruption. While there is considerable amount of blame to allocate for Russia's incompetent response to the wave of fires that destroyed approximately a third of the country's crops, left thousands homeless, and indirectly caused the death of hundreds of people, it would be foolish to ignore the role that corruption might have played.

How is it that a country as rich as Russia employs fewer firemen than Germany and cannot afford the latest in fire-fighting equipment? Could it be that the government lacks sufficient funds to fulfill necessary tasks because so many people have abused their positions to profit themselves or their "favorites?”

If president Medvedev wants to be taken seriously, he should send a clear message that he will not tolerate insubordination on the part of persons who have acted as obstacles to efforts to combat corruption and modernize the Russian economic and political system. He should act presidentially and unleash Russian law enforcement and the Audit Chamber to determine precisely whether Luzhkov and his wife broke the law in the course of enriching themselves.

One has to wonder why Medvedev has not sought a comprehensive investigation of privatization and the manner in which contracts were awarded during Luzhkov's tenure in office. If this does not occur, it will be difficult to invent an explanation that will be acceptable to the Russian people or reflect positively on prime minister Putin.

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT:

The blessing (which is difficult to doubt, due to the synchrony and the character of the media attack), or even ordering (as some commentators speculate) of the recent slander media campaign against Mayor of Moscow Yuri Luzhkov was probably one of the worst political mistakes made by the Kremlin in 2010.

The reputation of president Medvedev is going to suffer regardless of what happens next, and whether or not Luzhkov actually resigns from his position. How can a president who talks about modernization, innovation and democracy justify the worst Soviet political methods employed by state-controlled television channels in this "character assassination campaign?" The campaign smells in its style like Khrushchev's exile of Marshal Georgy Zhukov and many other former comrades, like Mikhail Gorbachev's "purges" of leaders from Central Asian republics, and finally his decision to oust Boris Yeltsin from the position of first secretary of the Moscow City Communist Party Committee in 1987.

I do not think that Gavriil Popov (the first democratically elected mayor of Moscow and Luzhkov’s predecessor) is right when he suggests that Luzhkov may do today what Yeltsin was able to accomplish after he was fired, ousting Gorbachev himself in 1991. It is unlikely the same will happen today, and 74-year old Luzhkov is not the Yeltsin of 1987.

For me, Luzhkov is more like the marshal Zhukov of Russian liberal democracy. Luzhkov has led the city that has been the flag bearer of Russian reforms since 1992. He led it through Anatoly Chubais' barbarous privatization and the bloody events of October 1993. He guaranteed the victory of Yeltsin in Moscow in the 1996 presidential election, but turned against him in 1999. Luzhkov was capable of working together with Putin through both of his terms and it was Luzhkov who appealed to Muscovites to vote for Medvedev in 2008. But the difference between Luzhkov and the rest of Russia’s liberal reformers is that he really accomplished a lot in his position, and Moscow is really an unquestionably better city today than it was in Soviet times. Unfortunately, I can't say the same about the rest of the country.

In my opinion president Medvedev will not win much from this anti-Luzhkov campaign. The reasons for it are as follows.

Firstly, the president demands that governors of Russian regions should be popular among the people. This is a good idea, but it is difficult to find a region in Russia where the popularity of a governor matches the support of Muscovites for their mayor Luzhkov, despite his age and the wealth of his wife.

Secondly, most of the "facts" about Luzhkov's so-called corruption and even crimes that were used in television programs are more than ten years old. Where has Medvedev been all this time? Moreover, I seriously doubt that any of these "facts" will ever be proven in a court.

Thirdly, the bosses of several Russian television channels just proved again that they are not so much free journalists, but more closely related to members of the oldest profession. Do they really believe that people in Russia are completely incapable of judging and analyzing what they see? I was laughing through most of the programs, but I was saddened at the same time at seeing what Russian television has turned into. I think many Russians felt the same.

And there is one more thing. All these anti-Luzhkov programs do is cultivate among young – and particularly provincial – Russians negative feelings toward all Muscovites (who live almost in another country compared to their own towns and villages, which is really the “Other Russia – Drugaya Rossiya”); negative feelings and even hate toward other local “fat cats” who became rich as a result of the Russian reforms; and a great contempt toward Russian capitalism and liberals, like the governor of the Kirov Region, who just sent his child to go to an elementary school in England.

Russian power holders in this case should not ask where "Far Eastern Partisans" and other radical youth groups come from, why such movements will most likely continue to flourish in "proletarian districts" of Russian cities and town, or why so few people believe in modernization, innovation and praising young democracy.
These programs cut the same branch on which the post-Soviet Russian elite has been so comfortably sitting. It is the time to understand that.
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