Bang! The news about the sudden and arbitrary dismissal of Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov came today as a lightning struck – to everyone that had not been following Russian politics in the last few years. In fact, this step was so exactly predicted by political commentators and Kremlinologists throughout the planet, that one might even have a slight suspicion that the tech-savvy Dmitry Medvedev took his decision after reading numerous blog entries predicting that the autumn of 2010 was indeed the last opportunity for the President to fire this political Methuselah. Whichever way Medvedev took his decision this also marks the beginning of the 2012 showdown. Luzhkov, commonly referred to as the “third man” in Russia after Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev, will leave a complicated legacy to deal with.
Preceding his political era, he has been a Putin-style autocrat in the capital since 1992. Manoeuvring himself cleverly through the changes led by Putin (although they don’t really have a loving relationship), he had a firm grip on the Russian capital. Banning human rights demonstrations, allegedly tampering with the capital’s financial resources, allowing dubious construction projects and honouring Stalin are all mentioned in Luzhkov’s political obituaries that appeared in large numbers across the web after today’s decision. But Luzhkov is not entirely dead politically. Being the unquestionable head of the capital has gotten him some valuable political and economic assets in the last 18 years. His wife, Yelena Baturina is after all the most powerful women in Russia, and a billionaire on her own right, and Luzhkov himself is often said to be linked to a number of businesspeople from the shadowy kind. More than that, he has political support. Dmitry Medvedev may dismiss mayors and governors with a mere signature, but he cannot easily destroy political links.
When the first official call for the dismissal of Luzhkov appeared after the infamous “documentary” presented by a state-sponsored television channel, deputies of the Moscow Municipal Duma, both from the governing United Russia party and the phoney “opposition”, literally rushed to declare a unison support for the mayor. The Moscow branch of United Russia did the very same. If this is not enough, maybe the fact that it took the government more than a year of dismissing Yeltsin-era governors through the country, giving clear signals to Luzhkov to cooperate, and that in spite of all that, the mayor publicly refused to resign (or – allegedly – to even consider resigning in exchange for a high position somewhere else and/or the appointment of one of his allies as his successor) will show just how powerful Luzhkov thought himself to be. He may even be right: the fact that Medvedev wrapped up the matter by a reticent decree issued from China, where he is in visit, refusing to meet face-to-face with the dismissed mayor and appointing Luzhkov’s ally Vladimir Resin as an interim mayor might signify that Medvedev feels uncomfortable with the task he is facing. Namely, to rebuild from scrap the Moscow power structures of United Russia, a party he does not even fully accept as his own.
Who might come after Luzhkov? Definitely a man strong enough to face this enormous challenge, but weak enough for the tandem to properly deal with. It might either be a close Putin-ally with strong links to the energy industry, comfortable with and used to keep things under control, like the vice-premier Sergei Sobyanin, or it could be someone from St. Petersburg, an old fellow from the KGB, like vice-premier Sergei Ivanov. Although this latter solution would be undoubtedly shakier, bearing in mind the aversion of Muscovites against a leader from St. Petersburg, both mean that Vladimir Putin will have the capital under his full control for the first time since his coming to power.
So, what’s the deal with the Prime Minister apparently acting not-so-happy with the President’s decision? Or was it really Medvedev who took this step? There has been a lot of debate going around the fact that Putin entirely stayed out of this whole story, letting Medvedev steal the show this time. There were allegations of a growing conflict between the two leaders (reminding that Putin defended Luzhkov not so long ago, and just days before his removal, Putin even sent him birthday greetings), suggestions that Putin let Medvedev do the dirty job here, or even hints about a tacit agreement between the two leaders to let new people skim the benefits of the Skolkovo Innovation Project.
I think what really happened is part of a test, thought out by Putin for Medvedev. I am, like some other people, not exactly sure whether Vladimir Putin is to return as President in 2012 – but he is, as he had pointed out, is eager to be sure about what happens next and whether his world will fall apart. His silence about the Luzhkov affair will give Medvedev the opportunity to show his abilities as a state leader and as a Putin-loyalist, both to the Prime Minister backed by the United Russia party and the Russian people. Bloggers are already very upbeat about the news, and supposedly quite a big part of the population will be as well. If he succeeds, Medvedev is one step closer to his second presidential term, and Putin is in no need to get the Kremlin back. If not, however, Putin, having kept his lips tight about Luzhkov will emerge untouched from this nasty shenanigan, free to choose either another successor or a return to the presidency. Who knows, this new guy may even be the future mayor of Moscow?
Willing or not, this affair is the last opportunity for Dmitry Medvedev to prove his skills and his loyalty to his mentor and his nation. The modernisation is not Putin’s cup of tea: sheer force and balancing elites is. Whether it suits Medvedev as well will turn out in the following months.