Russian President Medvedev fires Moscow's mayor, a longtime Putin supporter

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

'Medvedev's rules'

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.

Putin, visiting the distant city of Syktyvkar for a timber conference, responded coldly. "It is perfectly obvious that the Moscow mayor had a conflict with the president, and in the meantime the mayor reports to the president, not vice versa. For that reason, the necessary steps should have been taken in a timely manner to normalize the situation," Putin told reporters.

Stocks fell, along with the ruble, and some Muscovites shared the pessimism. "He has done a lot, especially for us pensioners," said Zinaida Gorshkova, a 70-year-old doctor. "I am afraid of changes."

Luzhkov, 74, was elected in the heady and turbulent post-Soviet years. Though rumors of unsavory connections swirled around him, they had little effect in a nation of ambitious and widespread corruption.

"He is accused of corruption," Ivan Prokhorov, a 20-year-old student, said Tuesday, "but there are no facts to confirm it." Even if he were corrupt, Prokhorov said, he wasn't as corrupt as he could have been. "Yuri Luzhkov was doing a lot for his city."

Yeltsin's generation

He was the last of the generation that rose to power alongside Boris Yeltsin, who gave governors and mayors expansive authority. Putin has been methodically trimming those powers. In 2004, he made those offices appointed rather than elected, which is why Medvedev was able to fire the mayor.

"As the president of Russia, I lost confidence in Yuri Luzhkov as the mayor of Moscow," Medvedev told reporters.

In recent months, one regional ruler after another has quietly retired, including Mintimer Shaimiev, who had presided unchallenged over the republic of Tatarstan since 1991.

"The other governors preferred to go without a fight," said Mark Urnov, head of the Expertiza think tank, "but not Luzhkov. He tried to get Putin's support. But he started to behave more openly than is possible under the regime we have now. He violated the fundamental rules of the regime. That's why Putin decided to remain publicly neutral."

After Luzhkov criticized Medvedev this month, Russian television, which is tightly controlled, quickly fired off a documentary that accused the mayor and his wife of unseemly profit in a country where corruption is a well-practiced art. Other reports called Luzhkov negligent for vacationing while Moscow endured smoldering bog fires and deadly smog this summer.

Luzhkov had transformed his city - with its twisty, "War and Peace"-era lanes, its grandiose Soviet avenues and slogans, and its gloomy, gritty stagnation-era nights - into a shining megalopolis. Nothing escaped his attention. One year he ordered all stores to decorate with Christmas lights, and they did. Putting on a lavish celebration of Moscow's 850th birthday in 1997, he took on the weather, decreeing that no rain would fall and enforcing his edict by sending up a squadron of planes to seed the clouds so the precipitation would come down before reaching Moscow.

"He was extremely effective in dismantling democratic institutions, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly," said Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister and a member of the democratic opposition. "This is one of the pillars on which the Putin regime is based."

Nemtsov, another democracy proponent, said Luzhkov's dismissal will mark a new day for the nation. "The only chance for Medvedev to explain this to the nation is to start an anti-corruption investigation against [Luzhkov ], which is great for Russia."

Oreshkin, the analyst, was not so sure.

"It's wishful thinking," he said. "The truth is, we still don't know who Medvedev is. And Khodorkovsky is still in jail."

Special correspondent Alexander Tsymbal contributed to this report.

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