Medvedev vs Putin battle looms as Luzhkov rides into the Moscow sunset
- J Brooks Spector
- 29 Sep 2010 06:00 (South Africa)
On Tuesday, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired Moscow’s long-time mayor Yuri Luzhkov in what may be another shudder in the growing rift between the Medvedev and Prime Minister (and former-possibly-future president) Vladimir Putin. By J BROOKS SPECTOR.
While on an official visit to China, Medvedev announced Luzhkov’s axing, saying he had lost “the trust of the president of the Russian Federation”.
The Russian president has the authority to fire mayors and governors, and firing the country’s most powerful regional leader may boost his authority as president and vis-à-vis his current deputy and probable rival, Vladimir Putin. In a letter written to Medvedev just before his removal, Luzhkov wrote, “Recently, being one of the party's leaders, I have been fiercely attacked by state mass media, and the attacks were related to the attempts to push Moscow's mayor off the political scene” and that their party “did not provide any support, did not want to sort things out and stop the flow of lies and slander”. Translation: They cut me loose, those ungrateful so and so’s! A Kremlin spokesman said Medvedev only saw the letter after dismissing Luzhkov but his decision was already made.
Luzhkov had been the city’s top politician since the collapse of the Soviet Union, coming into power in Moscow in 1992. He is widely recognised for his role in the thorough rebuilding of Moscow. Along the way, however, his wife, Yelena Baturina, had become extremely wealthy by gaining a large share of the lucrative building contracts for the city’s makeover.
The proximate cause of Luzhkov’s firing seems to have questioning Medvedev’s fitness for office. But the mayor was being pressed to resign himself over a variety of miscues and bad political guesses. By firing Luzhkov, the reasoning goes, Medvedev has demonstrated toughness and decisiveness, undermining the whisper campaign that had been aimed at weakening his standing as Russia’s president, and enhancing Putin’s viability as once-and-future president. This kind of political mud wrestling has generally been unusual in Russia’s regimented political system – except during the country’s raucous elections when pretty much anything goes.
This whole business may also recall the Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew’s story from when he was president. In describing the relationships among the big powers (China, the US, the Soviet Union) in their dealings with Southeast Asia’s smaller nations, Lee used to tell foreign listeners: “You know, there is the old Asian saying: ‘When the elephants make war, it’s the grass that suffers.’ But if those same elephants should make love, well, the grass doesn’t come out much better.” Moscow politics too seems to be in line for a period when things will be tough on the grass in the looming showdown between Medvedev and Putin – especially if Putin decides to make another run for the country’s the top job – before everybody is kissy and huggy again.
Watch: Associated Press report.
In making public his decision to axe Luzhkov, Medvedev told the media, “It is difficult to imagine a situation under which a governor [Moscow’s mayor is officially called a governor and is appointed not elected] and a president of Russia, as the chief executive, can continue to work together when the president has lost confidence in the leader of a region”. Medvedev then appointed Vladimir Resin, Luzhkov’s deputy as the interim Moscow leader while he sorted through a list of names for the new person to be deployed, er, appointed, to Moscow’s top position.
Apparently seeking to line up behind the immediate victor in what must be one of the early rounds in the wrestling match between the really big guys, party secretary Vyacheslav Volodin from Putin’s (and Medvedev’s) own party, United Russia, quickly lined up to support Medvedev’s decision. “We regret that one of the founders of the United Russia party, due to his own mistakes, has lost the trust of the head of the government,” he said. While Putin himself didn’t make any public utterances, foreign media observers say it is unlikely Medvedev would have taken his step without Putin’s initial acquiescence in the matter.
Maybe Luzhkov’s career also shares something in common with that classic machine politician, “hizzoner”, the boss, the late, legendary Chicago mayor, Richard J Daley, Chicago’s “Mayor for Life”. Daley ruled Chicago from 1955 to 1976, doling out contracts for civic construction to supporters and building a patronage network second to none in American politics, turning the aphorism that “money is the mother’s milk of politics” into a fine art. Daley became a major force in national Democratic Party politics, reliably delivering an overwhelming flood of Chicago and Illinois votes for Democratic candidates for an entire generation.
But the first cracks in Daley’s grip on the levers of power and patronage came from the corrosive 1968 Democratic presidential convention in Chicago, when radical students and others, intent on disrupting the convention, were brutally suppressed by Chicago police – an activity later termed “a police riot”. Daley himself was immortalised when he gave a middle-finger salute on the floor of the convention in the direction of the anti-Vietnam War Senator Abraham Ribicoff – and then mouthing an obvious anti-Semitic epithet at him on national TV as well.
Although he died while still in power, Daley’s rule was increasingly challenged by reformist elements eager to replace his iron grip on the city’s political life.
Back to Russia. Luzhkov, meanwhile, had also been increasingly criticised for his own brand of hubris in ruling like an autocrat, squelching dissent and turning a blind eye towards (or actively supporting and benefiting from) the corruption in Moscow political life. Luzhkov had been further criticised by historic preservationists for giving the go-ahead for the demolition of historic buildings to pave the way for glitzy new developments. On top of this, Luzhkov has been vociferous in his antagonism towards gay and alternative lifestyle proponents. With Luzhkov’s downfall, Right Cause, a liberal political party, was in a celebratory mood saying, “All that the mayor has succeeded in doing in his post has been cancelled out by the lawlessness, destruction of architectural monuments, petty tyranny and blatant corruption.” Meanwhile, the BBC has reported that Russian prosecutors are now pursuing a number of corruption cases against officials in the former mayor’s office but Luzhkov has not been named in these cases – so far.
The immediate chain of events leading to Luzkov’s surprise dismissal seemed to have begun when he publicly took Medvedev to task over the president’s apparent indecisiveness to give the go-ahead for some new highway projects, thereby lining up his support behind Putin’s putative return to the presidency in the future. That was clearly a strategic blunder.
But, the final blow that gave Medvedev the opening to get rid of this thorn in his side seems to have been growing public criticism of Luzhkov’s vacation while Moscow sizzled during a major heat wave, paired with severe air pollution from out-of-control forest fires beyond the city. This gave the usually quiescent, state-controlled TV networks a chance to raise their own critiques of Luzhkov’s activities and to point some fingers at the widely acknowledged corruption.
At his height, Luzhkov was not just your standard, garden-variety regional power broker. He had once jockeyed for the presidency itself against Putin and he clearly didn’t take very kindly to getting instructions from a relative political youngster like Medvedev, the 45-year-old, former law professor who has styled himself to be a techno-friendly video blogger and Twitter aficionado.
Russian political commentators were quick to score this round in favour of Medvedev. Mark Urnov, a Moscow political analyst, told the media, “It's a victory for President Medvedev that he has the ability to dismiss a person of such heavy political weight.” And Vladimir Milov, a former energy minister and now member of the democratic opposition said, “This dismissal is a sign we are entering a new political era. The myth of that top-down unity is now in doubt.” While Boris Nemtsov, also a member of the democratic opposition, commented, “If Luzhkov's departure meant a change in politics, it also meant a change in prospects - at least for Medvedev, (who) has a chance to be a real president.” That Russian grass is going to take a beating either way it seems. DM
Main photo: Medvedev and Luzhkov in 2007. Reuters.