When Moscow authorities needed to move an old railroad bridge a few weeks ago, they put their showboating mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, atop the rusting hulk -- and with a shot from his starter's pistol floated it down the Moscow River on six tugboats.
Today, Luzhkov pulled off a similarly audacious maneuver, one that might have embarrassed the legendary first Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago. Luzhkov, a machine politician in Daley's mold who is getting ready to run for president of Russia, moved up by six months the next mayoral election, to December, just to make sure he enjoys an incumbent's safety net.
The rubber-stamp 35-member city council voted 28 to 1 for a draft bill to change the election law. Luzhkov, both popular and feared, was last elected on June, 16, 1996, to a four-year term with 87.9 percent of the vote.
His term formally ends next June. The next presidential election is scheduled for next summer as well. However, Luzhkov could not run for mayor and president at the same time. Political analysts noted that if Luzhkov can get reelected mayor before the presidential vote it will be a nice launching pad for the big presidential campaign. In addition, as mayor of Moscow he gets a seat in the upper house of parliament.
Alexander Krutov, deputy chairman of the city council, said the schedule change was needed because Muscovites would have to vote too many times next summer, "in the midst of their gardening, too." But the real reason for the vote was offered by Yevgeny Bunimovich, another council member. "This of course is a political matter -- it has to do with Luzhkov."
Despite today's decision, all is not placid for Luzhkov as Russia moves full-bore into the election season for a post-Yeltsin parliament and president.
For starters, Luzhkov is being criticized for rampant corruption in the capital by former prime minister Sergei Kiriyenko, who may run against Luzhkov. While Luzhkov is a tried and true vote-getter, he has never had a frontal challenger raise questions about corruption, which could be made more potent now because Moscow is tightening its financial belt. Kiriyenko charged that in Moscow "it is impossible to solve a single small matter without a bribe." Luzhkov replied that he would sue for libel, as he often does when criticized. Kiriyenko slammed today's election decision, saying "the lawful term of the elections has now been violated."
At the same time, Luzhkov's many foes in President Boris Yeltsin's inner circle are gunning for him. Even though Luzhkov often stood at Yeltsin's side, relations with the Kremlin have turned cold. "Winter," was how Sergei Yastrzhembsky, a top aide to Luzhkov who was Yeltsin's press secretary, described it today.
Luzhkov has championed his own blend of crony capitalism, in which key property and contracts have gone to pals, and state capitalism, in which the city chooses between winners and losers in Russia's freewheeling market economy. In both approaches Luzhkov calls the shots. This has long put him at odds with some of Russia's other prominent business leaders, in particular Boris Berezovsky, a leading tycoon who has said that Russia's new capitalists ought to tell the government what to do.
Another long-standing adversary of Luzhkov is Anatoly Chubais, the architect of Russian privatization. Neither Chubais nor Berezovsky has made a secret of his disdain for Luzhkov's methods and his fear that, if elected, Luzhkov would extend them to all of Russia. Kremlin aides have been touting new, embattled Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin as a possible candidate.
But their anxiety about a Luzhkov succession has underscored that Luzhkov remains a serious contender. He has organized a party, Fatherland, laden with bureaucrats, to compete in the parliamentary elections, and he enjoys a high profile -- almost without criticism -- in the Moscow-based Russian mainstream press. While he may easily win reelection in the capital, Luzhkov's biggest handicap as a national candidate is that he is viewed with suspicion in many provinces, which have long envied Moscow's relative prosperity.