December 2, 2005

Kremlin poised to stamp control on maverick Moscow

By Christian Lowe

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's President Vladimir Putin has
been steadily snuffing out potential challenges to his power
and now he is preparing to storm the most stubborn bastion yet:
Moscow's feisty city government.

Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the former Soviet bureaucrat who has
run Europe's most populous city for over a decade with a degree
of autonomy that irks many in Putin's team, has announced he
will step down when his term ends in 2007.

The process of deciding who will take over in Moscow -- a
brash metropolis of fabulous wealth, crime and grinding poverty
-- starts in earnest this weekend with elections to the City
Council, which will have a hand in choosing Luzhkov's

Putin's team is expected to try to get a pro-Kremlin
loyalist into the plum job that brings with it kudos, a
municipal budget of more than $10 billion and an economy the
size of New Zealand's.

"The Kremlin is very keen that whoever replaces Luzhkov
should be a loyal and malleable figure," said Yevgeny Volk, an
analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a think-tank.

Luzhkov, bald and combative with the physique of a
wrestler, has transformed Moscow from a drab Soviet capital
into a boom town of neon-lit casinos, shopping malls and
designer boutiques that has more billionaires than any other
city in the world.

Luzhkov's Moscow has a seedier side too, with prostitution
and gangland killings, deep poverty and allegations of
corruption -- never proven -- among City Hall officials.

The Kremlin is especially keen to take control now.

With its 6.9 million voters, Moscow could play a decisive
role in Kremlin plans to transfer power to Putin's preferred
successor in the 2008 presidential election. The president is
restricted by law to two terms and will not run again.


Luzhkov's office is within sight of Red Square and the
Kremlin, from where Putin, a popular former spy, runs his vast

Quietly and without being anything but loyal to the
president in public, the wily Luzhkov has escaped a Kremlin
campaign of centralization that has brought other regional
bosses to heel.

Where other local leaders toe the Kremlin line without
deviation, Luzhkov has been known to criticize the government
and parliament. And his web of business and political links
make him the man to reckon with in Moscow.

His personal popularity with voters and the system of
patronage he uses to run the city give him power that is
independent of the Kremlin. Analysts say that, by the standards
of Putin's Russia, makes him an unpredictable maverick.

Luzhkov was widely believed to have been planning a bid for
the presidency in the late 1990s, although he backtracked when
Putin emerged as the front-runner.

Analysts say the mayor, who is 69 and has been in the job
since 1992, has finally bowed to Kremlin pressure and accepted
it is time for him to step aside.

The Sunday election for the City Council is the next phase
in the handover.

The mayor used to be directly elected but under new rules
Putin will nominate someone for the job and it will be up to
the 35 councilors to approve or reject his candidate.

"Because of this, ensuring the council's loyalty becomes
more important than before," said Yevgeny Bunimovich, a
councilor with the Yabloko opposition party.


Opinion polls point to pro-Putin party United Russia taking
a majority in the council, an outcome that should ensure
Putin's nominee for mayor is pushed through when the time

Analysts expect jockeying within the ruling elite over who
gets the nomination. Rival Kremlin groups, they say, will
battle it out and Luzhkov will fight a rearguard action to
retain some influence.

Some commentators speculate Alexander Zhukov, a
Harvard-educated deputy prime minister in Putin's government,
could be the next mayor. Others name Kremlin aide Georgy
Poltavchenko, another former spy, as a possible choice.

A tennis fanatic whose leather cap has become his
trademark, Luzhkov is a colorful figure.

Most Muscovites see him as a dynamic man of action. He has
been behind a huge construction boom and -- unlike the bosses
of most other Russian cities -- sees to it that public
transport runs on time and school buildings are repaired.

His 42-year-old second wife Yelena Baturina runs a
construction firm involved in many of Moscow's building
projects. Forbes magazine this year said she was Russia's
richest woman with an estimated fortune of $1.4 billion.

Many in Moscow's liberal intelligentsia think Luzhkov is a
boorish autocrat with a taste for kitsch art.

Critics cringe at some of the statues he has built,
especially one of Peter the Great that, they say, looks like
the tsar is standing in a bathtub.

Invited for a game at one of Western Europe's most
venerable tennis clubs, Luzhkov horrified ground staff by
asking if he could land his helicopter on the courts, according
to someone who witnessed the exchange.

"(Luzhkov) believes he is the undisputed master of this
town," said Alexei Komech, a leading Moscow academic who has
clashed with the mayor over architecture and says he was once
sued by City Hall for defamation.

"That is not completely democratic because he is always the
only one who can be right."