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September 27, 2010

Russian President Fires Moscow Mayor

by James Brooke

On a state trip to China, Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev reached around the world to fire the Mayor of Moscow.

In what analysts are calling the most decisive move of his presidency, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev took on the entrenched Mayor of Moscow - and fired him.

He says he has lost trust in Yuri Mikhailovich Luzhkov as the Mayor of Moscow.

On Monday, Luzhkov, mayor of Russia's capital for almost two decades, all but dared the president to fire him. Tuesday morning, he learned from a television report that he was being fired.

Since the fall of communism, a series of Russian presidents and prime ministers, have treated Luzhkov gingerly. Not only did he rule Russia's political, economic, and financial center, but this pugnacious barrel-chested man was genuinely popular, and controlled the largest electoral base for the ruling United Party.

VOA's senior correspondent Andre de Nesnera discusses what the firing was all about:

Two weeks ago, in the face of direct attacks from Kremlin-controlled television stations, Mayor Luzhkov received unanimous votes of support from the city council and the local chapter of the ruling party.

By dethroning the mayor, Mr. Medvedev, a reformist, may be preparing his candidacy for the 2012 presidential elections. Editor Victor Lannik, of the independent newspaper Slovo, believes the president's bold move changes Russia's political equation.

"He will be a candidate, which means we are in for a very intriguing political period," he said.

In recent weeks, when pressure grew from the Kremlin, Moscow's mayor increasingly tried to ally himself to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Mr. Medvedev's mentor. One month ago, Mr. Putin had assured the mayor he would serve out his term, until July. But this month, Mr. Putin remained silent, never rising to the Mayor's defense.

On a visit Tuesday to an Arctic village, Mr. Putin told reporters it is perfectly obvious the Moscow mayor had a conflict with the president, and "in the meantime the mayor reports to the president, not vice versa."

Now the fight is for control of the political machine that runs the most populous city in Europe and Russia's largest regional budget, $36-billion a year.

Luzhkov resigned from the ruling party, but he told colleagues he would remain active in politics.

Exiled Russia oligarch Boris Berezovsky has urged Mr. Luzhkov to run for president. In an interview Monday in New Times magazine, he said: "The only rescue for Luzhkov is to go into politics and announce his presidential bid. Then every arrest and lawsuit will be, roughly speaking, another million votes."

Ruling party parliament deputy Sergei Markov warned in an interview that Luzhkov would be unwise to join Russia's political opposition.

"It is not clear if he will start accepting the reality, or if he will start some attack. If so, I think the business empire of his wife, Yelena Baturina, will be attacked," said Markov. "Yuri Luzhkov's opposition activity, of course, it will look a little strange."

Baturina was a mid-level city official when she married Luzhkov in 1991, the year before he became mayor. Today a construction magnate, she is the only woman billionaire on Forbes' magazine list of Russia's richest people.

Moscow's acting mayor will be deputy mayor Vladimir Resin, who has been responsible for the city's construction sector. Last year, Resin became widely known after Vedemosti, the Russian business newspaper, published a photograph of him wearing a Swiss-made watch valued at $1 million.

Muscovites appear to be taking a new interest in the corruption allegations that swirl around City Hall. Last Saturday, 1,000 people in Moscow demonstrated in favor of restoring direct elections to choose big city mayors. But President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, known here as the 'tandem', made it clear the Kremlin will choose the next mayor of Moscow.