Russian President Medvedev fires Moscow's mayor, a longtime Putin supporter
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 10:56 PM
MOSCOW - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev stepped out of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's shadow long enough on Tuesday to fire Moscow's larger-than-life mayor, rattling a political establishment that until now has accepted Putin as the nation's undisputed authority.
The mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, has ruled Russia's biggest and wealthiest city since 1992 with an authority that would have been the envy of Chicago's legendary Richard J. Daley. He built grand cathedrals, circled the city with two beltways, erected glass skyscrapers and made sure Moscow retirees received free transportation and pensions that averaged $350 a month, while other Russian citizens made do on $280.
His construction-magnate wife became a billionaire. And he always delivered votes to Putin.
Then a few weeks ago, Luzhkov, who has been a steadfast Putin backer, made a mistake. He broke the unspoken rule that requires absolute political harmony in public and openly sniped at Medvedev.
Speaking to a government newspaper, Luzhkov criticized the president for stopping construction of a project that the mayor favored, a St. Petersburg-Moscow highway through an ancient oak forest outside the capital. That gave Medvedev the opportunity to fire Luzhkov, offering Russia-watchers a feast after months of parsing crumbs: Is Medvedev his own man after all and not a Putin puppet?
"It means," said Boris Y. Nemtsov, a member of the democratic opposition, "that Medvedev has a chance to be a real president."
Officially, of course, Medvedev is president. He won the office in 2008 because Putin had served two terms, then the limit, and couldn't run again. So Putin became Medvedev's prime minister and continued running the country. Medvedev's camp was more progressive, political pundits said, while Putin's was more authoritarian. The only question: Which one did Medvedev truly belong to?
"Who is Medvedev?" Dmitri Oreshkin, a well-known political analyst here, asked Tuesday. "In 2008, it was clear he occupied his position temporarily, and he was junior in the tandem. Today he made the decision he had to make so he would be more than a decoration."
Over the past year, Medvedev has been solidifying loyalties, preparing for the 2012 presidential elections - but on his own behalf or Putin's? The prime minister has played coy about running for the presidency again in two years, suggesting that it could be him or Medvedev. But the assumption has always been that whatever Putin wanted was his.
Tuesday's dismissal was one of the most provocative political developments here since 2003, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the wealthy head of Yukos oil, dared to encroach on the Putin political landscape and was arrested on charges of corruption. He remains in prison.
"When Khodorkovsky was arrested, the message was you can exist here only if you play by Putin's rules," Oreshkin said. "Now Medvedev is saying you have to play by Medvedev's rules, too."
On Tuesday, the political establishment piled on, siding with Medvedev. The president issued his decree while on a state visit to China, saying he had lost confidence in Luzhkov, who would be immediately but temporarily replaced by a deputy mayor. In the parliament, only a single member, Josef Kobzon, offered the once-untouchable mayor any support. United Russia, the dominant political party, which Luzhkov helped create, abandoned him.