The dismissal of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the surrounding public speculation provide a glimpse inside Russia's political system, its organization, and the people who inhabit it.
Luzhkov's position was logically in jeopardy after the Kremlin began removing powerful regional governors from office last autumn, starting with the Sverdlovsk Region's Eduard Rossel and Tatarstan's Mintimer Shaimiyev. All have been replaced by manageable functionaries.
However, the circumstances surrounding Luzhkov's dismissal and the passions it stirred were quite unprecedented. Then again, Moscow's place in the country's political and financial system is also quite unique. In the Russian Empire of old, the country's heart, head, and pocket were in different places, but now everything is concentrated in Moscow, and this raises the stakes accordingly.
The political hunting season to remove heavyweight local officials opened not long ago and will soon close. A year ago, United Russia could not have hoped for a record numbers of votes in the Moscow City Duma elections without Luzhkov's support. However, the regional elections scheduled for October 10 will mark the start of real preparations for the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Luzhkov, who has survived past attempts to remove officeholders, understands this well and stated plainly that without him, United Russia could not hope for high results in Moscow. But the other side also realized that time was running short and decided to raise the stakes. Plenty of speculation exists about just who exactly is on this "other side;" clearly, it is a coalition of anti-Luzhkov forces cobbled together for the occasion and not simply Medvedev, as conventional wisdom has it.
Luzhkov has been the object of numerous attacks in the past. He had always survived, partly because although all or most of the influential business and political clans could have united their efforts to remove him from the office, agreeing on his successor was virtually impossible for them. But each attack weakened Luzhkov's position, forcing him to give up some of his power to keep his post. Indeed, the Moscow mayor cuts a pale figure today, compared to what he was, say, ten years ago.
The battle to remove the mayor has lasted for months, and decoding the complex tangle of signals and clues over that time is a nearly impossible task. The signs of trouble include the case initiated by the Investigative Committee against Deputy Mayor Alexander Ryabinin, who was accused in taking bribes, as well as the affair surrounding land acquired by Luzhkov's wife Yelena Baturina and her INTECO company.
Another sign came when the Russian edition of Forbes magazine ranked Russia's family clans, with Luzhkov-Baturina at the top. And the Kremlin's irritation over Luzhkov's absence from Moscow during the choking wildfires this summer and the ensuing public altercation sent another unmistakable signal. Finally, the main TV channels were set off against Luzhkov.
A number of Luzhkov's own statements, as well as the publications in his defense that he clearly initiated, raise doubts about the adequacy of his response and his perception of the political situation. It brings to mind the story written by Luzhkov that appeared when the wildfires were at their height, about the noble elk and the mediocre bureaucrats who failed miserably in their attempts to lasso it. Either Luzhkov's political instinct has misled him now, or he was misinformed, or perhaps even provoked.
Luzhkov mobilized all his strength in this showdown with the Kremlin, but it was far from enough. The only support he could muster was the Moscow section of the United Russia party and the Moscow City Duma, both entirely under his control, and some veterans' organizations and aging communists, including Gennady Zyuganov. In the case of the first two, their expressions of support for the mayor resulted more from the absence of any clear signals from higher political powers. Neither of them was ready to follow Luzhkov to the grave, but until the federal party and government authorities gave the word, they were prepared to defend the incumbent's cause. Now they will probably put on just as much of a show of support for the new leader.
United Russia, which counts Luzhkov among its founding fathers, was an important and at the same time completely paralytic figure in the unfolding conflict. Initially, the party leadership huffed and puffed and said all would be sorted out, but then it fell silent. The minute the president withdrew his confidence in Luzhkov, the party leadership began talking about the mistakes he'd made. Is this not a perfect demonstration of the complete lack of independence and substance shown by the "party of power?"
The real trick, however, is not firing Luzhkov, but finding a replacement for him. His successor must meet at least three main requirements: first, he needs to have no personal ambition or the ability to pursue it (because of age, lack of public image, or other restrictions); second, he must have no direct link to any of the main competing clans; and third, he needs familiarity with the Moscow political machine and an ability to bring it rapidly under his control.
Of the figures currently being discussed, practically no one meets all of these criteria, except perhaps for the governor of the Nizhny Novgorod Region and former Moscow deputy mayor, Valery Shantsev. Separating the posts of mayor and the head of the Moscow city government could offer a possible solution: first, it is easier to reach agreement between the main clans in the elite on a pair of leaders; second, in this situation someone from Luzhkov's team, such as Vladimir Resin, could be appointed to head the city government, thus ensuring continuity. In any case, the next mayor is likely to simply fill the job rather than act as a new city boss in it for the long haul.
In the end, who are the winners and losers? Spilling the dirt on Luzhkov leaves a stain on the authorities in general, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, despite his attempts to distance himself from the firing. As for Medvedev, he didn't win this fight so much as not lose it. He could have lost if Luzhkov had remained in place, and he could yet win if his favored candidate becomes the next mayor, but this is highly unlikely.
Until the new mayor is announced, it will not be clear which of the clans has won. There cannot be any real competition between Putin and Medvedev - they are quite simply in different weight categories - but the lack of coordination in their actions is evident. At the same time, though the talk about how Putin supported the Moscow mayor seems highly exaggerated, Putin probably would have found it more convenient to leave Luzhkov in place as a figure obliged to show his loyalty and usefulness as a reliable occupant of the job, rather than look for a replacement who will not upset the political balance between the main clans in power.
What will happen next? For Luzhkov, not much. That is, of course, if he does not take the bit between his teeth, which cannot be ruled out. He will probably manage to hold onto most of his assets. First, this will make it easier to guarantee a gradual transition of power to new hands, and second, this affair is too close to the center of the political system to continue airing dirty laundry in public. As for the fight for "Luzhkov's inheritance," the powers that belong to the Moscow mayor, first of all, it began long ago and part of this inheritance has already been divided up, and second, the Kremlin is unlikely to let the conflict intensify.
One thing is certain: Luzhkov's departure marks the end of a political era. We have just witnessed what was probably the last spark of public politics and fierce competition within the current system. How long the system outlives Luzhkov is the big question now.