News / Europe

Former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov Leaves Mixed Legacy

A few days ago, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev fired Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

Luzhkov was one of the most influential politicians in modern day, post-Soviet Russia. During his 18 years as Moscow's mayor, he transformed Russia's capital from a shabby, crumbling city, to an attractive Western style metropolis.

Robert Legvold, Russia expert at Columbia University, describes some of the major projects initiated by Luzhkov.

"It is a glittering city with glamorous shopping malls and with shopping facilities not just for the very rich but for the middle class - burgeoning numbers of shopping malls in and around the city that match anything you see in the West, in the U.S. or elsewhere," he said. "The city itself has been painted and improved. There has been an effort to do something about the traffic congestion by adding a peripherique, that is a circle road within Moscow."

But Legvold says even though Muscovites are now proud of their city,  not everyone has agreed with Mayor Luzhkov's decisions.

"Environmentalists or preservationists are upset that some important buildings or parts of Moscow have been torn down to put up high-rise, glass steel structures," he said. "But it is now a world class city. It is also one of the world's most expensive cities - normally it ranks either number one or number two in the world."

Many of the infrastructure projects were done by Inteko, a construction company headed by Luzhkov's wife, Elena Baturina, considered by Forbes magazine to be the third richest woman in the world.

"She's head of a construction company, but this construction company works for the city," said
David Satter, who is with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "And these contracts are notorious - especially anything to do with infrastructure in Russia is notoriously corrupt. And she's benefited from that. In order to do business with the city, there's a whole system of bribery that is in place, with bribes being passed up from one level to the next and ultimately reaching the mayor's office - and this is well-known in Moscow. It used to be said of Luzhkov, in his favor, that of course he steals, but he doesn't steal everything - he leaves a little bit for the city. And this, by Russian standards, was considered to be quite commendable."

For years, corruption allegations followed Luzhkov and Baturina - but the two consistently denied them. In addition, they have never been formally charged.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (file)
Russian President Dmitri Medvedev (file)

Just a few days ago, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev fired Luzhkov saying the Moscow mayor "lost the confidence of the president" - a decision that was backed by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Analysts say it is difficult to determine the real reasons for Luzhkov's dismissal, but they point to several recent events that might have precipitated the decision.

Robert Legvold says a botched construction project on the road to Moscow's main Sheremetyevo airport created huge traffic jams during the summer. Luzhkov was criticized for that and some Russian officials felt he wanted to divert traffic to the city-controlled airport, Domodedovo.

"You had more recently the peat bog fires, the forest fires in the context of the heat wave in August - and he [Luzhkov] stayed on vacation and was seen as essentially an absentee leader who was not responsive and was criticized for that," he said. "As Putin and Medvedev grew increasingly impatient with him, they had unleashed the national media, the television media which certainly does their bidding, had begun broadcasting negative stories about both Luzhkov and Baturina, his wife."

But Legvold and others say Luzhkov sealed his fate in a September newspaper interview in Rossiyskaya Gazeta. Without naming Medvedev, he questioned the president's authority and depicted him as a man of all talk and no action. He also criticized Medvedev for halting construction of a superhighway through forests north of Moscow.

"So at that point, I think it was clear that for Medvedev, that if he didn't do something, he would really be seen as very weak if he couldn't do anything," Levgold said.

First Luzhkov was urged to resign. But when he refused, Medvedev fired him.

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