Thursday, September 23, 2010

Medvedev's Main Event

There's a political battle shaping up in Russia pitting President Dmitry Medvedev against Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful Mayor of Moscow, in a struggle that could have long-ranging effects on the Russian political scene.  Luzhkov, who has overseen the capital for nearly two decades, is likely Russia's third-most powerful politician behind only Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.  He runs a city that is responsible for almost a quarter of Russia's annual gross domestic product (GDP) and controls a budget of more than $32 billion dollars (along with, some critics say, a paramilitary force of 10,000 in the Moscow police).

But in the past three weeks a series of reports have aired on Russia's television networks highly critical of Luzhkov; given the tight control the government exercises over the nation's television networks, it's nearly impossible to believe that these anti-Luzhkov pieces aired without the blessing of someone at the top levels of government.  Among the allegations leveled at Luzhkov were that he was responsible for Moscow's chronic traffic jams; that his wife, Yelena Baturina, amassed her vast personal fortune thanks to kickbacks on countless Moscow construction projects (Baturina owns a development company and is Russia's richest woman as well as one of only three female billionaires in the world, according to Forbes); and perhaps most damning, that Luzhkov was indifferent this summer as Moscow was being choked by smog from forest fires burning around the city and was more concerned about his collection of bees (Luzhkov is an avid bee-keeper) than he was about his citizens.

On this last point, it's tempting to see Luzhkov as a sacrificial lamb being put up to atone for the government's lousy response to the forest fire crisis this summer; a high-ranking termination to deflect public anger over the official disaster response (or lack thereof).  Another possibility is that Luzhkov got on Medvedev's bad side by criticizing his decision to halt work on the Moscow-to-St. Petersburg highway that would have plowed through the ancient Khimki Forest (more on that story here).  Medvedev called for the route of the highway to be reconsidered after the Khimki Forest protests gathered national attention, but on September 1 Luzhkov wrote an editorial slamming the suspension of work, saying the new highway was vital to improving the nation's infrastructure.  It was the kind of public rebuke of the top leadership not often seen in Russia today, and it seems like Medvedev took great offense, since shortly after the editorial was published, the damning reports about Luzhkov started appearing on the TV networks. On Sept. 10, Medvedev replied to criticism leveled at the national government by Luzhkov by saying that “government officials in this situation should either take part in improving our social institutions or go into opposition.”

Some political analysts in Russia are saying that if Medvedev is that dissatisfied with Luzhkov's performance then he should just fire him outright, and by not removing him from office, they argue, President Medvedev is looking like a weak leader.  This brings up the third possibility, that Luzhkov has become a pawn in a behind-the-scenes power struggle between Medvedev and Putin ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.  While Luzhkov challenged Putin for the presidency in 1999, since then he has been a largely loyal ally to the Kremlin.  Some in the Luzhkov camp are even suggesting that people within the Kremlin are playing up the Medvedev-Luzhkov feud to attempt to drive a wedge between the ruling tandem (as they sometimes call themselves) of Medvedev and Putin.  For his part, Putin has so far remained publicly silent on the Luzhkov matter.

Dmitry Orlov, director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow, estimates that there is a 70% chance that Luzhkov will either resign or be removed from office “in the near future.”  Should that happen, it will likely be seen as a “win” for Medvedev and will burnish his credentials as a reformer, even through he's has little else to show in his fight to reduce corruption in Russia; of course conversely if Luzhkov weathers the storm and stays in office, Medvedev will look weak, while it will likely boost the image of Putin as the real power in Russia.  Past the symbolism of Luzhkov staying or not staying in office, having an ally in the mayor's seat in Moscow would also give either Putin or Medvedev an advantage in the 2012 elections in the unlikely case that they face off against each other, since the mayor could be relied on to deliver hundreds of thousands of votes to their preferred candidate.  

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