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Last Man Standing

By Roland Oliphant Russia Profile 09/14/2010

Muscovites are Enjoying the Unusual Spectacle of a Genuine Political Battle Between the Big Beasts of the Political Establishment – And Only One Man Can Win

The battle between the Kremlin and Moscow City Hall exploded into the open over the weekend, as federal television channels launched an unprecedented attack on Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s good character. Luzhkov came back fighting, promising to sue the television channels that defamed him. But with the well-documented tensions between the Kremlin and the ruler of Moscow going public, he seems to be fighting for his political life.

The NTV documentary aired twice on Friday night was brutal in its delivery, but unoriginal in content. The charges it repeated – essentially that Luzhkov’s wife Elena Baturina had benefited from kickbacks – are just those that Muscovites regularly exchange between themselves. Opposition politician Boris Nemtsov quickly claimed NTV had lifted at least three sections practically word for word from his agitational pamphlet “Luzhkov: the Results.”

The editing, however, was creative, and though it lacked subtlety, left the viewer in no doubt of the message. The finale, intercutting images of Luzhkov pumping smoke at his beloved bees in their hives with those of Muscovites struggling through the smog that enveloped the city this summer, was a particularly adept exercise in black propaganda.

Luzhkov has come out swinging, issuing a statement threatening to sue any television station that “actively gave out negative information” about him or his administration, The Moscow Times reported. After NTV’s opening salvo on Friday night, the state-owned Channel One, Rossia, and Rossia 24 joined the attack with reports about everything from corruption to blaming him for the city’s congestion – but the mayor’s statement did not name specific stations.

REN-TV – which did not join in the weekend frenzy of mayor-baiting – on Monday evening managed to secure an exclusive interview with the mayor, in which he said that he does not take the allegations seriously. “In Russia, making excuses is not the way to defend yourself. If you start making excuses it means you’re guilty of something,” Luzhkov said when REN-TV invited him to respond to the programs. “In this case I’ll answer very directly. It’s idiocy, its dirt, it’s a kind of porridge cooked up to influence the mayor.” The full interview will be broadcast on Saturday night, Gazeta.ru reported.

The battle opened last week after a source in the presidential administration told national news agencies that City Hall had been trying to “drive a wedge” between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin by criticizing Medvedev’s suspension of work on the new highway through the Khimki forest.

Pundits have been predicting Luzhkov’s imminent ouster literally for years, and continuously proved wrong. But the barrage of negative coverage from state-controlled television channels has many analysts convinced that Luzhkov is finally facing his Waterloo. “To my mind, the only way out now is to fire Luzhkov,” said Dmitry Petrov, an expert on regional affairs at the Moscow Carnegie Center. “The moment has come,” agreed Director of the Center for Political Information Alexei Mukhin, who once told Russia Profile that the Kremlin was “saving Luzhkov for desert.” Though, mindful of the fate of similar predictions in the past, he added “we can’t say anything with 100-percent certainty yet.”

But getting rid of Luzhkov will be far more complicated than getting rid of the other long-serving governors that the Kremlin has been replacing over the past year. Luzhkov, as the Kommersant daily pointed out Monday, is no ordinary governor who can be removed by the powers that be. On the contrary, as a leader of the Fatherland – All Russia Party that merged with the Unity Party in 2001 to form United Russia, he is a key founder of the current party of power and commands significant loyalty.

Luzhkov was reported in the Kommersant daily to have held consultations with United Russia Party Chairman Boris Gryzlov on Monday night, though United Russia did not acknowledge it until Tuesday afternoon, when it released a statement saying that the mayor had “informed Gryzlov about the lies on television.”

Once praised as an energetic and effective replacement for his ineffectual predecessor Gavriil Popov, Luzhkov has seen his previously unassailable approval ratings slide in recent years. The Levada Center, an independent pollster, found that 63 percent of Muscovites had a good or very good view of their mayor in April of 2001. But that has steadily declined until September to October 2009, when the last poll was taken and his positive rating had slipped to 36 percent. But while he’s down, he’s not out. Forty two percent had a “middling” impression of him, and only 18 percent thought badly of him.

That weakens the argument that Luzhkov is indispensable to getting a United Russia vote out in Moscow – but does not demolish it. In an entirely unscientific survey of Muscovites undertaken by Russia Profile, many if not most expressed a surprising tolerance for their mayor’s shortcomings. “Everyone knows Luzhkov is a thief,” said one Muscovite in his 70s. “But there are thieves who just take everything for themselves, and then there are thieves who put their ill-gotten gains to use.” The sentiments range from one housewife’s “he’s corrupt, but he gets things done,” to the peculiarly philosophical “he’s has already stolen everything he needs; a new mayor would still have to make his fortune,” from a young woman in her 20s.

Choosing a successor is going to be difficult, but it will not necessarily center on someone rich enough not to steal anything. “Luzhkov is a shadow of what he was a few years ago, and he’s old enough not to harbor any higher ambitions,” said Petrov. Finding a figure that would not use the prominent position as mayor of the nation’s capital as a stepping stone to the national stage may be difficult. “A replacement should be competent, able to run the political machine Luzhkov has built, and not too ambitious,” explained Petrov. “It’s not going to be easy for Putin to find someone like that.”

One possible candidate is Valery Shantsev, currently the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region (where Putin is presently chairing a development conference, incidentally) and a former deputy of Luzhkov. At the age of 63, ruling Moscow would be the peak of his career rather than a launch pad to greater things, and “he is in one sense an insider who has been on Luzhkov’s team, and on the other hand an outsider by dint of spending recent years out of Moscow,” as Petrov put it.

Other names that have been floated include outgoing Kaliningrad Governor Georgy Boos, and potential successors from inside Luzhkov’s team include Yuri Roslyak, another one of Luzhkov’s deputies. But Mukhin warned that “We are laboring under an immense quantity of disinformation,” about the potential replacement, and was reluctant to speak definitely about who may or may not make the list.

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