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Analysis & Opinion
28.09.10 Gone For Good?
By Roland Oliphant

This morning Muscovites woke up to dramatic news: President Dmitry Medvedev had fired Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov with immediate effect. While First Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin takes the reins of the capital in Luzhkov’s place, Muscovites and political analysts are wondering who is big enough to step into the shoes of one of Russia’s political big beasts. What does this final execution of one of the giants of the Russian political arena mean? And what if Luzhkov is wounded, but not dead?

Luzhkov’s departure had effectively been announced two weeks ago via a barrage of incriminating documentaries on federal television channels and anonymous press briefings by Kremlin staffers. But as recently as the weekend those sources were telling journalists that the mayor still had a choice – he could do the decent thing, fall on his sword and receive a comfortable but not powerful retirement post. Or he could be fired.

When he returned from holiday in Austria on Monday Yuri Luzhkov made his choice clear: “I will not leave office of my own volition,” he told journalists who caught up with him at a UNESCO opening ceremony yesterday morning.

President Dmitry Medvedev, currently in China, took him at his word, issuing a presidential decree that fired Luzhkov because he had “lost the president’s confidence.” By the time most Muscovites woke up, the man who had governed their city for 18 years was out of a job.

But the nature of his departure will have repercussions far beyond the Moscow city limits, where duties of government have been taken over by First Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin. For Medvedev’s decree struck a blow against one of the biggest beasts in the Russian political arena. If it is fatal, Luzhkov’s political death will be followed by a reordering of Russian politics. But if he is only wounded, it could unleash a gargantuan battle in the run-up to the 2012 elections.

Old enemies

The intention to unseat the Moscow mayor has been in the works for years. Luzhkov famously once harbored his own presidential ambitions, and in 1999 was a serious contender to succeed Boris Yeltsin. Under a deal that saw Luzhkov endorse Vladimir Putin and his Fatherland-All Russia party merged with the Unity Party to become what is now United Russia, he was allowed to keep his rule of the capital, but the tensions between City Hall and the Kremlin have never went away – and rumors about his ouster have circulated ever since.

As such, said Alexei Mukhin, the director of the Center for Political Information, today’s news is the culmination of a carefully thought-out grand strategy. “Medvedev and Putin made a decision to clear the political field of their last remaining potential competitors,” said Mukhin.

Those potential competitors were the so-called “strong governors” – lumbering big beasts of the Russian political landscape whose local popularity and independent political machines made them effectively independent of the “power vertical” system of the national management that both Putin and Medvedev have been trying to build. Since last year Medvedev has been making a concerted effort to force them into retirement – Governor Eduard Rossel of the Sverdlovsk Region left office in November 2009, after 14 years in office. Mintimer Shaimiyev, who had governed Tatarstan since 1991, gracefully relinquished the reins of power in March this year. He was followed in June by President of Bashkortostan Murtaza Rakhimov, who had governed since 1993.

Luzhkov, 74, was the biggest and last of these political mastodons, and no one watching these developments had any doubt he was next on the list. But his unique status as a one-time rival for presidential power, founding member of the United Russia political party and undisputed ruler of the nation’s capital meant he had to be approached with care. The Kremlin appeared to be “saving him for desert,” Mukhin explained some months ago, in the hope that he would take the hint and follow the graceful example of his peers.

If he had taken the hint and gone gracefully into retirement, all would have been well. But, as Pavel Baev, a research professor at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, pointed out, “Luzhkov is not your regular Russian political animal.” His bull-headedness has resulted in a spectacular clash of wills from which no one will emerge unscathed.

Perhaps feeling the walls closing in, Luzhkov began to hit out, publically disagreeing with Medvedev over the route of the new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway through the Khimki Forest and appearing to back Putin over his prot?g?e. That turned out to be a mistake. “That friendship that was a myth – good relations are not the same as friendship,” noted Mukhin. “It’s a kind of lose-lose political situation,” said Baev. “And the loser is not just Luzhkov but [Putin and Medvedev] as well, because neither of them wants to have Luzhkov as an enemy.”

As the war of words escalated, Medvedev was backed into a corner by his own and Luzhkov’s rhetoric. The result was “a force majeure situation for the president: either he sacks this rebellious mayor or he loses political face completely,” said Baev. When Luzhkov finally made it clear he would not fall on his own sword, Medvedev had no choice but to wield the axe himself.

At the end of today there are no winners. Luzhkov has lost his job, but Medvedev has made an enemy of a caliber that could very well prove too much for him. By Tuesday afternoon sources had already reported that Luzhkov had quit United Russia. Could he be prepared to go to the polls again against the Kremlin once again? “He could go into the opposition, either within United Russia or outside it,” said Dmitry Katayev, a member of the Moscow board of the Solidarnost movement and a democrat Moscow City Duma Deputy from 1990 to 2005. “I don’t really believe in this, but for the provinces Luzhkov is a very attractive figure thanks to the fact that Moscow is a relatively well-off city.”

“He will not remain silent, I suspect,” said Baev. “He has things to say, and probably the essence of the thing is that the formulation in Medvedev’s decree about the presidential loss of confidence is mutual – as he has also lost confidence in this president.”

He may have a tough time finding allies though. Luzhkov has crossed swords with the liberal opposition many times, and is unlikely to be welcomed in their ranks. Vladimir Milov, who co-authored the pamphlet “Luzhkov: the Results” which detailed many of the allegations later carried in the television campaign against the mayor, has ruled out cooperation with him.
The only option left would be to form his own new party – a danger Mukhin reckons the Kremlin is all too aware of: by leaving the ouster so late they hope Luzhkov will not have time to form a new political party before parliamentary elections next year, he said.

And Moscow?

As for the capital, there is no doubt it has come to the end of an era, but the question now on everyone’s mind is not so much who will replace him as mayor of Moscow. “This whole situation is an utter insult to Muscovites,” said Katayev. “Because all of these struggles are taking place in the shade, the media has been given certain directions, but again, under the table, not to mention the successors – this is really behind the scenes. Lots is being said about Luzhkov, almost nothing about his successors, and not a word is being said about Moscow’s actual problems.”

Luzhkov’s approval rating has fallen in recent years from an unassailable 60 percent to near ambivalence. An emergency poll by the state owned VTsIOM pollster released Tuesday found that 33 percent of respondents thought he was effective, 34 ineffective and another 34 percent could not answer (the pollster did not account for the extra percentage point). “Luzhkov’s power is so diminished by now that it’s not going to make that much difference who runs the city,” said Nikolai Petrov of the Moscow Carnegie Center.

But the new man, whoever he is, will not be able to implement sweeping changes. “Luzhkov created such a powerful construction that a new team will have to spend a minimum of six months on analysis” before they try to reform anything, said Vyacheslav Glazichayev, a member of the Public Chamber and a long-standing Luzhkov critic. “Much will depend on who succeeds him. [White House Chief of Staff and former Governor of the Tyumen Region] Sergei Sobyanin would be the expedient variant. If it’s someone from Luzhkov’s team, nothing will change.”

No one, however, will be able to boast Luzhkov’s public mandate. He was democratically elected three times, the last in 2003, and his supporters still insist that given the opportunity he could win again. Interfax reported Tuesday that Luzhkov has vowed to campaign for a return to mayoral elections, which were abolished in 2004. In that regard he may find allies in the opposition.
The source
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