Oh what a amusing time it’s been in Moscow recently. Yuri Luzhkov — oligarch, kingpin, homophobe, and all-around big whig — is said by nearly everyone to be on the outs. Vedomosti claims that Yuri has about a week left to resign quietly or go down guns a-blazin’. The newspaper cites unnamed sources in the Kremlin, the federal government, and even the mayor’s office.
Rumors about ousting Luzhkov have been a sort of Halley’s Comet in Russian politics for over a decade now. In 1999, after his OVR party battled Putin’s Edinstvo party in parliamentary elections (and lost), Luzhkov was allowed to keep his Moscow digs, provided he could keep rocking the vote and turning out support for the new and still-ruling monster: United Russia. There have been plenty of other less existential crises in the last eleven years. Russian Newsweek published a list of twelve things Muscovites can expect to see disappear from the capital, should Yuri Mikhailovich get the boot. Reading that list, you get a sense of what has gradually but dramatically eroded the mayor’s reputation:
1) TV Tsentr, Luzhkov’s 1990s-style personal TV station. A creation of Luzhkov and Primakov back in the days of the media wars, TVTs is the one major channel not to air anti-Luzhkov kompromat recently. (Though, the station’s management did recently decide at the last minute not to air a fluff piece in support of Luzhkov.)
2) Lousy state-supported artists like Zurab Tsereteli.
3) The persecution of gay rights parades. Here I’m inclined to think the RuNewsweek staff is dreaming. Luzhkov might be Moscow’s loudest gay basher, but I expect any successor would be more than happy to score populism points by squashing a few sexual deviants. That said, Luzhkov’s “gays are Satanic” idiot-rhetoric has perhaps become a sore point if only because it’s so damned embarrassing for federal officials who have to frequent Western Europe (where the only Satan-worshipers are still Muslims).
4) The Crimea. Luzhkov’s pet project, and perhaps a nice place to retire. Also, by extension of the millions (billions?) of tax dollars funneled out of Moscow all the way to Sevastopol, Muscovites will collectively cease to own that Ukrainian city.
5-12) Russia loses its second-most charismatic manager; one-way road traffic ends; Inteko (his wife’s business) bites the dust; along with the Bank of Moscow; living permit registration requirements lighten; the demolition of historical landmarks will slow; the courts will have to reorient to a new nexus of power; and certain privatizations of the 1990s could fall back into public scrutiny.
While the big picture is that Luzhkov is guilty of too much wrong over far too long a time, the questions being asked in the media frenzy range from grand and axiomatic (can there be only one ‘top dog’ in Russian politics?), to events-based (was it Luzhkov’s RosGaz op-ed about Khimki that angered the Kremlin? was it his absence during the summer fires? was it one or all of the twelve things RuNewsweek says will vanish along with Luzhkov?), to the inevitable focus on who’s organizing the anti-Luzhkov attacks (Medvedev? Medvedev and Putin? members of one of their teams?).
In an interview with The New Times (amusingly conducted over Skype, though the video and audio remain unpublished), Elena Baturina, Luzkov’s billionaire wife and swollen-headed female double, shared her ideas about who is out to get her husband:
Let’s suppose that there is a conflict: who among us will claim the presidency in 2012. At the moment there are two contenders, and who will declare himself the one in 2012 remains an open question. There are people in the president’s administration who fear that the [Moscow] mayor, as the election approaches, might come to support not of President Medvedev, but of Prime Minister Putin. That’s what it appears to be on the surface. And yet, as we’re all probably well aware, these people [Putin and Medvedev], after thinking everything over, will have to come to some mutual agreement. But people sitting at certain big posts would probably like to predetermine this situation. To tell the truth, I assumed the same thing as early as fall of last year … that a situation where the Moscow mayor would need to be discredited would definitely arise in anticipation of the election.
Baturina is understandably trying to play down the widely-held belief that Medvedev is gunning for her husband’s head. Ilya Barabanov at The New Times argues that Medvedev finally lost his patience with Luzhkov after the latter’s September 6th RosGaz op-ed defending the Khimki road construction. Four days later at a widely-discussed, ultimately very boring democracy forum in Yaroslavl, Medvedev inserted into one of his remarks the following statement: “State officials can either participate in the improvement of public institutions or join the opposition.” The media interpreted this to be a glove-slap to the face of the Moscow mayor, whom Vedomosti scandalized when it characterized his RosGaz piece as an attempt to split the tandem. So it comes as no surprise that Baturina’s main talking point in her New Times interview was “No, Medvedev’s fanboys are the ones trying to split the tandem! Yuri Mikhailovich is but a humble servant of ‘two contenders!’”
Back and forth between Luzhkov and the Kremlin is not unprecedented. In late 2008, he caught flack when he suggested in an interview with Channel One’s Vladimir Pozner that the federal government should reconsider the cancellation of direct elections for governors and mayors like him. The next day, the Kremlin’s press service followed up cryptically: “Dissatisfied governors can resign.”
So, little “love it or leave it” reminders for Luzhkov seem to be a fixture of the relationship he has with the feds. The new x-factor, however, is apparently the growing anxiety about who will take the 2012 presidential prize. Vadim Nikitin has described the Luzhkov situation as a “win-win” for Putin, arguing that Putin can either fire Yuri Mikhalovich himself and “show both who’s boss” or let Medvedev do the “dirty” deed, which is somehow supposed to “weaken” his political position.
Nikitin is right about one thing: Putin, at the outset of this battle anyway, seems to have set up camp cautiously “above the fray,” expecting that he could swoop in to calm things down when necessary. But that calculus presumably applied only to a scenario where Luzhkov and Medvedev had merely traded a few public barbs, and the mayor again needed a stern frown to remind him of his place. Instead, there’s been a media blitz that overwhelmed Luzhkov’s formidable machine. The reigning wisdom is that the mayor can either step down voluntarily and be replaced by an ally, or be fired embarrassingly and suffer the succession of an outsider. And what of Putin’s “win-win”? If he is the man to hand Luzhkov the pink slip, it’s a redundant point: Putin is the most powerful political figure in Russia. This wouldn’t be a victory for Vladimir Vladimirovich, but an awkward and unnecessary confirmation of common knowledge. Furthermore, it would constitute a serious blow to the credibility of “the ruling tandem,” which — whether genuine or a farce — is a long-term project with a lot invested by Putin and United Russia.
And then there’s the other possibility: that Medvedev will come away with the credit for removing Luzhkov. Indeed, even if Putin somehow steps into the media spotlight, Medvedev will come away looking stronger no matter what, if Luzhkov indeed goes. While it’s possible that remnants of Luzhkov’s clan might stage some kind of Star Wars style rebel resistance from a satellite of Moscow, Dmitri Anatolyevich will undoubtedly be able to attract more recruits to a pre-2012 support group that’s already setting up publicly visible outposts. If Luzhkov goes, Putin’s interests will not be served. This is to say nothing about the vote-machine Luzhkov manages in Moscow, which is something Putin and others presumably wish to preserve for the parliamentary elections next year and the presidential election the year after.
Luzhkov’s popularity has been in steady decline over the last ten years. It was 65% in 2001 and was down to 36% last year (Levada). Only 18% of Muscovites say they’d reelect him today (Superjob). (Not that there’s an election for Moscow’s mayor.) Luzhkov is an old man. His family is very very rich. Perhaps he feels the need to stay in office to ensure that his property and (wife’s) business are safe. If the rumors are true and the multitude of unnamed Kremlin sources are not just wily self-preserving trouble-makers like Baturina claims, then Luzhkov and his spouse are very likely currently hammering out the details of severance package from their villa in Austria. Most important will be continued immunity from criminal prosecution for political corruption, as well as continued favoritism for Inteko, though this will inevitably fade, as the pet projects of any new authorities will naturally elbow in for government contracts, too.
All this is strangely familiar, but the Medvedev role threatens the neatness of the routine. The ruling tandem was supposed to sit down quietly and discuss 2012 privately — over tea, let’s say. The decision itself would be almost irrelevant. These men, after all, are “of the same blood,” the same party, and the same stability-oriented platform. But the Luzhkov affair has the appearance of a power struggle — and not just the obvious one for control of Moscow’s gold and influence. The appearance of a more active and confident Medvedev gives off the impression that he’s asserting himself to boost his reputation as a leader, to make it harder for Vladimir Vladimirovich to cast him aside, should he wish to do so in two years. This amounts to the one thing that Putin promised Russia it wouldn’t have to suffer in 2012: politics. If I’m right and this mess with Luzhkov is indeed a situation that got away from the prime minister, I wonder if Luzhkov won’t remain in office after all.
I’m prepared to eat these words later in the week, if I’m proved wrong, but I will forecast now, here on AGT, that Yuri Luzhkov will not be replaced before his term expires next year.