Is the long, strange career of Yuri Luzhkov finally coming to an end?
- By Julia IoffeJulia Ioffe is a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine. She was a senior editor at The New Republic, and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009-2012.
View a slide show of Yuri Luzkhov here.
There are lots of stories in the news in Moscow today — a crime boss gunned down in the center of town, Poland playing good neighbor and arresting the emissary of the Chechen separtists in exile, a disappeared gay activist. There are no stories, however, about Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.
The silence is ominous, given that since last weekend, the Russian media — including state television — has been able to talk of nothing else. On Saturday and Sunday, Muscovites turning on their televisions were surprised to discover a series of exposés attacking a mayor who has long been one of the Russian state’s untouchable saints. And now there it was, all the evidence of his sins, set to threatening music, showcasing his wife’s crookedly financed construction projects, his lieutenants’ Swiss watch collections, him grinning madly next to his beehives. Because this ran on channels owned and tightly guarded by the state, it was clear that the material had come from the highest echelons of power. It was a Kremlin smear campaign the likes of which the city has not seen since the 1990s. For a week, as the Kremlin and Luzhkov dueled in public, Moscow finally got to see some real politics as the battles usually confined to secret corridors herniated into the mass media. And then the news just stopped.
What happened? The story, after all, has not gone away, and, in the battle’s aftermath, neither has Luzhkov, who has held on to his mayoral throne for 18 years with both hands and all 26 teeth.
It’s hard to describe exactly what Yuri Luzhkov is. He is the only mayor Moscow has ever really known in the post-Soviet period, a figure whose control extends into every corner of the city’s life. He is Moscow’s boss, which is precisely the problem: There can only be one boss in Moscow, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
And here’s the other side of that problem: Luzhkov has been in charge since before Vladimir Vladimirovich even thought of going into politics, and well before he got to Moscow. Luzhkov, on the other hand, has been helping run the city since the Soviet era. He started off as the reformist head of the Moscow city council during the perestroika years, and was appointed mayor by then President Boris Yeltsin in June 1992. But as Luzhkov brought the chaotic capital to order after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was also put in charge of privatizing huge swaths of Moscow property — making his real-estate developer wife (and former city council assistant 27 years his junior), Elena Baturina, Russia’s wealthiest woman in the process.
As mayor, Luzhkov created a vast and complex network of management that answered directly to him, leading many critics to compare him to Boss Tweed, the 19th-century kingpin who ruled New York as his private fiefdom. This made him extremely hard to replace. Luzhkov soon became a center of political power so potent that he was able to unify other Russian regional chiefs under his banner in the 1999 parliamentary elections. But this put him in direct competition with Putin, Yeltsin’s anointed successor, and the Kremlin and its oligarchs waged an aggressive media campaign against him — one that looked remarkably like the one Moscow saw this week. After Luzhkov’s bloc was soundly defeated, though, he was brought into the fold of Putin’s new party, endorsed the former KGB colonel for president in 2000, and allowed to keep control of his city, which collected more and more of the country’s ballooning wealth.*
As Putin consolidated his hold over Russia’s political system, Luzhkov’s personal kingdom became a constant irritant to the Kremlin. He was never ousted, however: if he supported Putin politically, he could keep his mayoral seat — and the riches it allowed him to tap.
Luzhkov, now 73, has also become increasingly eccentric with age, provoking controversies like his 2002 proposal to restore the statue of Felix Dzerzhinsky, founder of the Soviet secret police, in front of FSB headquarters. (The statue’s toppling in 1991 was a massively symbolic moment in the demise of the Soviet Union.) He has violently cracked down on gay pride parades, calling them “satanic,” which has made him a persona non grata in many European capitals. Last spring, he announced that he would mark the 65th anniversary of Russia’s victory in World War II by festooning the capital with portraits of Joseph Stalin. (The plan was scrapped amid public outcry.)
So it’s no surprise that Luzhkov is finally about to go. President Dmitri Medvedev has been pushing the stodgy, unresponsive old guard of regional government into retirement since the beginning of his term. It is an attempt to head off discontent — and any potential sabotage in the upcoming parliamentary elections. But Luzhkov has ignored what was becoming obvious to everyone: his time was up. “They hinted and hinted, hinted and hinted, and he just wouldn’t leave,” says Robert Shlegel, a parliamentary deputy from United Russia.
Luzhkov’s most recent trouble, according to Russian political insiders, began when he over-delivered votes in the regional elections last October. The fraud was so blatant and crude that it precipitated a week-long political crisis that lead many to question the Kremlin’s hold on a power vertical of its own making. But the final straw came when he decided to play Putin and Medvedev off each other, saying that, while one criticized him, one approved of his performance. “In our Russian bureaucracy, trying to split the tandem is the deadly sin,” says Aleksey Chadaev, the young new head of United Russia’s political strategy.
And so the Kremlin again put on its brass knuckles, the same ones it used on Luzhkov back in 1999: television. Last Saturday’s anti-Luzhkov special even featured notorious media assassin Sergei Dorenko, a veteran of the 1999 campaign. This time, he accosted the mayor for refusing to return from his Austrian vacation as Moscow filled with toxic smoke from the August wildfires, sending the city’s death rates through the roof. Luzhkov, Dorenko said, was too busy enjoying Austria, where “everything was just wonderful: cows with bells, girls with tits.”
The NTV special, was followed in quick succession by two others, including one on Channel 1, Russia’s main state channel. Here’s a partial list of all the — alleged — dirt the segments aired: Luzhkov granted his wife’s company, Inteko, lucrative tax breaks; he forced people from their homes — or burned them when they refused to move — in order to make room for Baturina’s housing developments; when Luzhkov did return from his Austrian vacation, he spent nearly twice as much money on his prized honey bees than on Muscovites made ill by the smoke; he inflated the cost of restoring an iconic Soviet statue and gave the contract to – who else? — his wife.
When the segments first aired, Luzhkov remained atypically quiet. Finally, on Monday night, a reporter from the vaguely oppositional REN-TV caught him off guard at a completely unrelated event honoring the memory of a long-deceased Soviet journalist and asked for an impromptu interview. But the mayor refused to respond to any of the attacks. “Explaining oneself is not the way to defend oneself in Russia,” he said. “If a person starts explaining himself, it means he is guilty.”
So instead of explaining himself, Luzhkov went on the offensive. On Wednesday, when a a group of United Russia delegates gathered in Moscow f
or a regional conference, Luzhkov delivered a rousing speech on his successes as mayor. The media war raging outside? “It’s all slander,” he said, before addressing a particularly sore spot. “They say that the mayor decided to allocate money to his little bees,” he said. “I can tell everyone, and many know this, yes, I am into beekeeping. I find it interesting. It’s a philosophy. It’s a unique philosophy of the life of a family, of the life of the society of bees. But I don’t need government funds for this. On the contrary, the entire produce of my hives, of my bees I send to orphanages.” Luzhkov got a standing ovation from his foot soldiers in the Moscow delegation, a clear upping of the ante.
Luzhov has also taken legal redress, convincing the Moscow city Duma to approve a resolution in his support and filing lawsuits against various press outlets that ran with the corruption story. He announced that there was no resigning until his term ran out in June 2011. Finally, in a painfully impotent defiance, Luzhkov announced that if the Kremlin gets its wish and forces him out, he won’t deliver the votes they need in next fall’s parliamentary elections. The Kremlin answered by reminding him publicly that the President could fire him at will.
Notably, Luzhkov has said nothing to the people whose votes he is attempting to hold over the Kremlin’s head, his more than 10 million constituents. It’s not clear they would listen. This is a group that barely votes and has not thought highly of its mayor for a long time now; in the last decade, his approval rating has fallen by almost half. They know he steals, they know his wife steals, they know that he does not have their interests at heart, but they cannot do anything about it. Luzhkov, like every other regional boss, has been appointed by the Kremlin since 2004.
So now what? Luzhkov’s days are clearly numbered. A fight like the one that just unfolded is not one that the Kremlin can be seen to lose, which means that Luzhkov has to step down. The Kremlin cannot simply fire him because the Luzhkov machine, woven together not only by money but by family times, is still alive and well, and the state needs it on its side. Making an enemy of Luzhkov and his army would be a disaster, especially when it comes time to vote next fall. And now that the stakes have been upped, it means that the story has moved back to the corridors where it belongs. Rest assured, heated negotiations for a political golden parachute are keeping everyone who matters in Moscow working through the weekend. And, in case Luzhkov insists on playing hardball, NTV has announced it will air another installment of Luzhkovgate on Saturday.
Inevitably, though, a compromise will be hammered out and Luzhkov will announce, with the sweet melancholy of an elderly public servant cleaning out his desk, that he has decided to spend more time with his family. The fact that the media noise is dying down means that day is very close. This, after all, is Putin’s style: Wait for the scandal to be forgotten, and then make your move, thereby avoiding the appearance that you caved to pressure.
Luzhkov will not be fired — that would also be out of character for Medvedev, who has only booted a handful of governors, though he certainly has the legal power to do so. Luzhkov will step down, politicians and political watchers here say, as soon as everything quiets down.
And there’s another thing to consider: “His birthday is the 21st [of September],” Chadaev told me. “It would be a shame to spoil such a day.”
*This article originally stated that Luzhkov ran in the presidential election, not the parliamentary ones; it has been updated to reflect the correction.