News / Europe

Moscow's Mayor Refuses to Resign

James Brooke

Moscow's powerful mayor is refusing to resign, resisting direct pressure from Russia's president, the man who has the power on paper to fire him.  

Yuri Luzhkov, a leading political figure in Europe's largest city for more than three decades, is staring down the Kremlin.

On Friday, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev told the Moscow mayor to build democracy or join the opposition.

Soon afterward, four national television networks broadcast special news programs attacking Luzhkov.  The first report aired for half an hour in prime time on Friday.  It focused on the successful Moscow real-estate career of the mayor's wife, Yelena Baturina.

Married in 1991, the year before Luzhkov became mayor, Baturina is the richest woman in Russia.  Last month, the Russian edition of Forbes magazine estimated her net worth at $2.9 billion.  The magazine also estimated that the Luzhkov's household income in 2009 was $1 billion.

Last year, British newspapers reported that Baturina had bought a 90-room mansion, London's second largest residence, after Buckingham Palace.  Baturina denied the reports.

Mayor Luzhkov told REN-TV that the weekend television reports were "stupid."  He said his wife "would be even richer, if she had not been the mayor's wife."

On Monday, the mayor and his wife announced that they would sue the four television channels for libel.  Luzhkov has a good track record of winning libel cases before Moscow judges.

Opposition activist Viktor Davidoff says President Medvedev might be using the television campaign to strengthen his hand before trying to fire the mayor.

"He is appointed by the president, which means that he has full right to dismiss the Moscow mayor today or even tomorrow," Davidoff said. "If instead of doing that he launches some kind of media attacks, it indicates that his position is somehow weak."

During the past two years, President Medvedev has forced into retirement almost all of the long-serving regional leaders who took over after the collapse of communism nearly two decades ago.  Luzkhov, who turns 74 years old next week, is the last of these often called "dinosaur governors."

Sometimes seen as out of touch, Luzhkov has been unable to ease Moscow's increasingly paralyzing traffic jams.  In August, when smoke from peat bog fires blanketed the city, he vacationed in the Austrian alps.  On Sunday, in what analysts say is the latest attack on Luzhkov's opponents, Moscow police arrested 30 people demonstrating outside City Hall, three blocks from the Kremlin.

Wearing his trademark, Soviet-style tractor-driver cap, Moscow's mayor has had a loyal following since he entered city politics in 1977.  Last year, he enjoyed 60 percent public approval ratings.  Representing Russia's largest and richest city, he is a co-chairman of the nation's ruling party, United Russia.

Russia is scheduled to hold presidential elections in 18 months.  Some analysts say the television barrage against the Mayor Luzhkov is the opening salvo in the presidential race.

Opposition activist Victor Davidoff says that Moscow will be key to winning the election.

"TV channels and media which support Prime Minister Putin, they keep silent," he said. "So in this case, it is obvious that the Moscow mayor gets support from the prime minister.  So it is basically a conflict between President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin."

For months, Moscow politics have been heating up in the public arena.

Opposition journalist Sergei Dorenko long blogged in obscurity, dismissing Mayor Luzhkov as "a billionaire with 100,000 cops."  Friday, Dorenko found himself on prime time, addressing the nation on television.

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