Moscow's former Mayor Yury Luzhkov

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Still highly popular after 14 years,
Moscow mayor looks to the future

By Paul Abelsky, Russia Profile*

23 September 2006: Few city mayors have billionaire wives and an independent foreign policy agenda, and even fewer elicit as much animosity and adoration as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov. He has remained the center of attention in Moscow political life for over decade, building up a legacy in politics and urban planning that is sure to outlast his mayoral tenure. And if Luzhkov’s recent moves are any indication, he is not looking to glide into a quiet retirement after 14 years in office.

Update 17 October 2010: Sergei Sobyanin has been appointed as Moscow's new mayor.

Update 28 September 2010: President Dmitry Medvedev has signed a decree sacking Moscow’s long-standing Mayor Yury Luzhkov of his duties after 18 years in office over what the decree says is a loss of the president’s trust in him. Rumors that Luzhkov might step down spread this summer when Moscow was choking in dense smog from forest and peat bog fires raging in the Moscow region. The Kremlin scolded Luzhkov, who was on vacation and not in Russia at the time, of being too late to return to address concerns posed by the wildfires. Luzhkov remained surprisingly calm. But it became clear back then that whether he would or would not keep the mayor’s post was not entirely dependent on him.

The mayor’s popularity had dropped with just 36 percent of respondents to a September opinion poll by the independent Levada center saying he was doing a good job. That was down from 40 percent in July and 65 percent in 2001. Luzhkov said on television on Monday that we would not step down voluntarily. That was not necessary in the end, and he has now bee
n replaced by his deputy, Vladimir Resin.

As a politician of nationwide stature and the administrative head of a city that towers over the country’s every walk of life, his decision is certain to bear consequences far beyond Moscow. More important for the city’s future is the extent to which the change of leadership will affect the distinct, albeit uneven, path of development the capital has taken under Luzhkov.

“It is relatively easy to overstate the impact of a single individual no matter how powerful, especially in a city as large and complex as Moscow,” said Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington, D.C., who has written extensively about Moscow. “No one can doubt that Mayor Luzhkov has left the imprint of his personality on Moscow, from his early years when the force of his will made people notice positive changes in the city to more recently, when his preference for large projects has appeared to dominate all opposition. In this sense, his shoes will be difficult for anyone to fill. Still, Moscow’s dominance of the central Eurasian urban hierarchy will continue unchecked no matter who the next mayor will be, whatever differences will emerge from specific policy choices.”

When exactly Luzhkov vacates 13 Tverskaya Street has been the subject of intense debate, although the mayor himself has stated that he intends to leave office next year, when his current mandate expires. Technically, the 35 members of the City Duma are now empowered to nominate the mayoral candidate, who is then presented for approval to the president. However, last year’s elections gave the pro-presidential United Russia – in which Luzhkov is a co-chairman of the Supreme Council – an outright majority, making a challenge to Luzhkov’s supremacy unlikely if he chooses to remain at the City Hall.

Still, the president has not formally endorsed Luzhkov in the ten months that passed since the elections. In the changes instituted in the electoral system after 2004, which did away with the popular election of governors, Putin has the right to reappoint regional leaders for office even before their current term expires, something he has done on occasion with such long-serving politicians as Mintimer Shaimiyev, president of Tatarstan.

But the wide media coverage of recent scandals in Moscow – such as the conflict of municipal authorities with residents in the suburb of Southern Butovo over property management – has prompted some observers to detect traces of an opportunist power play and an attack on the mayor’s presidential aspirations.

Influential and well-connected political analysts Stanislav Belkovsky and Sergei Markov have publicly stated that the Kremlin is interested in tempering Luzhkov’s ambitions and may have been behind the publicity given to the heated clashes in Southern Butovo as well as the recently formed movement of apartment owners who are facing eviction from the center of Moscow.

The exodus of key members of Luzhkov’s political team a year ago, when President Putin appointed Mikhail Men, Georgy Boos, and Valery Shantsev, all seen as potential mayoral heirs, to take over governorships of several far-flung Russian regions, was generally seen as an effort on the part of the presidential administration to dismantle the close circle Luzhkov has built up around himself with the possible aim of controlling the process of succession.

“The months that passed since those appointments is a long time and Luzhkov has been able to retain his standing as an independent political figure,” said Alexander Konovalov, director of the Institute of Strategic Evaluations, a Moscow-based think tank. “His continuing interest and engagement with global problems, as well as the reforms at the city-owned TV Center channel, shows that he is not yet thinking about quitting and writing memoirs. Competing in the 2008 presidential race is at least a consideration, but he is likely to make a prudent decision that is best for him.”

Although Luzhkov has publicly pledged to leave office after 2007, surveys of public opinion on the eve of the City Duma elections last year revealed that he still enjoys an overwhelming support among Muscovites. A Levada Center poll conducted in September 2005 showed that 69 per cent want to see Luzhkov remain in office and 24 per cent preferred an alternative candidate. Luzhkov’s approval ratings among Muscovites trump those of the president and federal authorities. Last August, according to a Levada Center survey, 45 per cent or respondents expressed trust in Luzhkov and the city administration, which was almost 20 per cent more than had faith in the central government.

Moscow looms increasingly large as the most appealing place to live in the country, based on a recent poll by VTsIOM. Almost every fifth Russian citizen (19 per cent) wants his or her children to live in Moscow, even beating out the prospect of a foreign residence. Twenty-one per cent of the respondents attribute the city’s well-being to the activities of the mayor, which still lags behind such explanations as the city’s status as a capital, tax proceeds from large companies and the abundant opportunities to earn a high salary.

Indeed, for all of Luzhkov’s contributions to steering the city through the chaos and the hardships of the 1990s, creating a managerial model that historian Roy Medvedev has described as “municipal capitalism,” Moscow’s socio-economic transformation into a global metropolis was also driven by a convergence of forces beyond the mayor’s immediate control.

“Moscow is an exceptionally complex and wealthy subject of the Russian Federation, with its unparalleled concentration of financial resources and political might,” Konovalov said. “The city’s size and disproportionate contribution to the national budget make it uniquely suited for the creation of an independent political base, which the present mayor was able to accomplish.”

The reverse side of Moscow’s economic heft and Luzhkov’s image as a pragmatic, can-do manager is that he has virtually run the city unopposed, turning it into a kind of fiefdom, where political and business interests fold neatly into one another. Yelena Baturina, the mayor’s wife and former secretary, is the richest woman in Russia, overseeing a business empire with a direct stake in the city’s construction complex. Not surprisingly, Luzhkov has drawn comparisons with Shaimiyev and Bashkortostan President Murtaza Rakhimov, long-time regional overlords with near-feudal control over their republics.

All three have been able to assemble regional variants of the “power vertical,” rooted at least partly in the prosperous local economies and sustained by a repressive grip on power, before the federal government set out to do the same on a much larger scale. Coincidentally, the appointment of members of Luzhkov’s team to regional governorships came at the time that two key officials from Tatarstan and Bashkortostan were promoted to become presidential envoys to the Far Eastern and the Volga Federal Districts.

“To my mind, cities remain viable and healthy over the long term through the involvement of citizens in controlling the fate of their communities, by establishing accountability to residents rather than to business and administrative interests alone,” Ruble said. “From this point of view, the sort of municipal capitalism practiced under Luzhkov, for all of its power and dynamism, will continue to be vulnerable. The problem is that all city leaders are human, and hence capable of mistakes. Without the check of meaningful accountability, powerful leaders will charge down the wrong path at some point in time. There appears to be very little to stop a future Moscow leadership from pursuing a disastrous policy, which is a serious problem for the future of the city.”

Luzhkov also has clearly enunciated national ambitions, dating back to his designs in the late 1990s to succeed then-President Boris Yeltsin. The mayor has managed to navigate he perilous waters of Russia’s high politics – often staking out positions antagonistic to the Kremlin – while never losing sight of his priorities in Moscow. A winner of three mayoral contests - in 1996, 1999, and 2003 – he has a chance to outlast the tenures of two presidents.

Luzhkov’s unapologetic rhetoric in recent months suggests that he continues to cast a glance across Russia and beyond. In published articles, speeches, and official visits, he has outlined a vision of a pragmatic, goal-oriented stewardship of national affairs and foreign policy, guided by a principled stance on Russia’s national interests and a patriotic regard for the nation’s past.

Indeed, from his perch in the City Hall, Luzhkov has conducted the kind of foreign policy that usually befits the head of state. His recent trips included visits to Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Abkhazia – which generated a protest from Georgia’s Foreign Ministry – and he has made known his often controversial views on matters ranging from the lingering Russian-Japanese territorial dispute to Russia’s accession to the WTO.

Yet his domestic legacy has already left a visible imprint in Moscow, and new initiatives point to long-term thinking about the capital’s development, regardless of who directs future changes. Last May, the mayor voiced a contentious proposal to merge the city of Moscow with the surrounding Moscow Region into a single administrative unit. A referendum is being planned for next year to determine if the initiative has sufficient backing. Other programs recently launched by the city administration include a costly public relations offensive to improve Moscow’s international image, specific measures adopted in August to stimulate the local economy, and new initiative announced in September to increase the city’s birthrate.

During the extravagant celebration of the city’s 859th anniversary on 2 September 2006, Luzhkov reiterated his single-minded pursuit of the city’s greatness with a view toward the national priorities dictated by the Kremlin. “Moscow is changing in front of our own eyes, it’s always in motion, every year taking on the appearance of a modern megapolis,” he said during the opening ceremony of the festivities. “By 2009, we will accomplish the task set by the president – doubling the GDP.”

* Paul Abelsky is a staff writer at Russia Profile, a Moscow-based information service on Russian affairs.

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