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Analysis & Opinion
18.10.10 The New Sheriff In Town
By Tom Balmforth

President Dmitry Medvedev’s appointment of Sergei Sobyanin as mayor of Moscow on Friday is one of the final plays in the ouster of Yuri Luzhkov, orchestrated by a Kremlin seeking to get its man into City Hall ahead of two key elections starting late next year. All has gone according to plan, say analysts, although the Moscow City Duma still needs to give its blessing to Premier Vladimir Putin’s former chief of staff Sobyanin. Meanwhile, the City Hall reshuffle has invited speculation that demonstrations in the Russian capital will be handled more calmly and could even be given the official go-ahead. Still, activists aren’t enthused with his appointment.

Medvedev invited Sergei Sobyanin to his Gorky residence hours after nominating the former deputy prime minister as his preferred successor to Luzhkov, calling Sobyanin an “experienced manager who possesses the necessary qualities for being mayor of Moscow.” Luzhkov’s likely successor, a Moscow outsider from Siberia’s Khanty-Mansiisk autonomous district, still needs the Moscow City Duma to rubberstamp his appointment. This is expected to take place at an extraordinary session on October 21, but Sobyanin appeared confident on Friday that this was just a formality, and has already announced his mayoral objectives.

“The questions of socially protecting the population, resolving the transport problem, integrating [the city] into federal programs, working jointly with the federal branches of power, and the fight against corruption – these should all of course become priorities for the activities of the Moscow government,” Sobyanin told the Russian president, who fired Luzhkov on September 28 for having “lost confidence” in him.

Sobyanin’s appointment finally puts to bed rumors that Acting Moscow Mayor Vladimir Resin could take the reins as a two-year stopgap. “Sobyanin on the one hand is a man who has experience of city managing, and on the other hand is very close to the Kremlin – his choice is logical,” said Sergei Mikheev, the vice president of the Center for Political Technologies.

As Putin’s chief of staff, Sobyanin, who has gubernatorial experience from his stint as governor of the Tyumen Region between 2001 and 2004, has become close to the Kremlin and a personal friend of Putin during almost six years as the premier’s chief of staff.

Ever since Putin abolished direct elections for regional heads in 2004 and the campaign to jettison entrenched Boris Yeltsin-era governors picked up speed two years ago, there was already speculation that Sobyanin was being primed to replace Luzhkov. “I heard rumors that Sobyanin was one of the Kremlin candidates to take the mayor’s post about two years ago, so I can’t say this appointment comes as much of a surprise,” said Mikheev.

Speaking to The New Times weekly magazine a week after his ouster, Yuri Luzhkov said that the Kremlin sought his removal in favor of a more reliable ally in the post of Moscow mayor, a position which oversees a sizeable portion of the Russian electorate, ahead of a series of key elections. “We can say that the operation to replace Luzhkov was launched with one person in mind – that person was Sergei Sobyanin,” said Alexei Mukhin, director of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “The people who were on the same shortlist with him – they were just statistics. This is clear.” The four-strong list of potential candidates to replace Luzhkov compiled by the United Russia ruling party included Transport Minister Igor Levitin, Nizhny Novgorod Mayor Valery Shantsev and Deputy Moscow Mayor Lyudmila Shevtsova.

The appointment of a slick manager who mediated with the regions and regional oil companies – Sobyanin served as chairman to TNK in Tyumen in the early 2000s – has provoked some analysts to speculate that this could deal a blow to Putin and the federal government. Mikheev played this version down. “If it was a loss, then Putin wouldn’t have agreed to this loss,” he said. Mukhin agreed. “Despite his fairly extensive experience of working at the federal level, Sergei Sobyanin beforehand was obviously an outstanding regional leader. So at this post of Moscow mayor he is going to be extremely useful for Vladimir Putin for the elections in 2011 and the presidential elections in 2012.”
As for the latest debate on who will step into Sobyanin’s shoes, Mukhin suggested that one of Sobyanin’s deputies would likely be appointed, and touted Deputy Head of the Government’s Central Office Kirill Androsov as a possibility.

Meanwhile, Sobyanin’s appointment has invited speculation that more leeway will be given to public protests in Moscow, such as the Strategy 31 anti-governmental demonstrations that were invariably dispersed violently by Moscow police under the iron-fisted management of Luzhkov. “If out of the millions of people in Moscow, 200 people want to gather on the 31st without fail on the Triumfalnaya Square, then let them,” said Vladislav Surkov, often touted as the political architect of today’s regime, in an interview with the Vzglyad Web site yesterday. The deputy chief of staff in the Kremlin administration added that demonstrations would still be broken up if they “disturb peace,” Echo of Moscow reported ahead of the Strategy 31 protest to take place in under two weeks.

Activists are expecting “mild liberalization” from Sobyanin, but have no illusions where his interests lie. “I don’t think Sobyanin is going to disperse the upcoming protest necessarily – we’ve already had information that apparently they intend to allow the protest on Triumfalnaya Square,” said Andrei Dukhonin, a regular Strategy 31 protestor with the Solidarity movement who doesn’t support Sobyanin. “I personally think this mayor’s appointment is a mistake. He is not up to the task of solving the city’s many problems. And I am entirely certain that it will now be the federal authorities who control the city. I know what Sobyanin represents – he’s part of the system and he’s one of Putin’s men,” he said. “But I still think there will be a mild liberalization. Having said that, if they think they’ve made a mistake with the protest, then of course they’ll clamp down again.”
The source
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