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Quake under the Moscow Immovable Point
September 17, 2010 19:58

Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov

Moscow's mayor Yuri Luzhkov is fighting to keep his job after a Kremlin-sanctioned TV documentary accused him of caring more about his bee collection than the people of his city. The film attacked Luzhkov's pompous lifestyle and that of his wife, Yelena Baturina, the world's third richest woman.

Tensions between Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev and Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor since 1992, have been growing tacitly for some months. They burst into the open on Friday evening, 10 September, when the pro-Kremlin NTV channel screened its 30-minute investigation, The Cap Affair, named after the mayor's emblematically proletarian black flat hat.

The film recalled how Luzhkov went on holiday to Austria in August as Moscow's citizens were struggling to breathe in choking smog while forest fires enveloped Russia. On his return the mayor, a bee enthusiast, gave more money to beekeepers than to smog-affected Muscovites, it said.

"Why did Moscow choke while the mayor rescued his bees?" the programme's title sequence asked, against a backdrop of pounding music. "How did his wife become the richest woman in Russia? And why does his deputy have a watch worth more than $1m?"

Since becoming mayor two decades ago Luzhkov has seen three changes of president, six parliaments and 10 prime ministers, not to mention two Chechen wars and a major financial crisis. This summer he marked 18 years in power. His supporters say he has transformed Moscow from a crumbling communist shell into a vibrant modern metropolis. Opponents say he has knocked down Moscow's unique architectural heritage, replacing it with vulgar fake palaces, and that he has been a disaster for the city's ecology and public transport network.

But it's the first time such frank criticism of Luzhkov has been aired on federal TV. NTV returned to the attack the next day with another anti-mayor's broadcast. This time, it alleged that Baturina's property company, Inteko – the source of her extraordinary wealth – had charged outrageous sums for the restoration of a much-loved Soviet-era statue, Worker and Collective Farm Woman. One of the films depicted Baturina in an unflattering light, shown enthusiastically eating a plate of bread rolls at a society party.

 Luzhkov is known to be close to Russia's powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin. But he appears increasingly at odds with Medvedev. Not long ago Luzhkov criticised the president's decision to freeze construction of a new Moscow-St. Petersburg highway after a public outcry over the demolition of the capital's Khimki forest.

Soon Medvedev hit back. Speaking at an international forum in the town of Yaroslavl, he rebuked Luzhkov and suggested that "officials should either participate in building institutions or join the opposition".

NTV's accusations of large-scale corruption are a severe blow. The programme questioned Luzhkov's claim that his and his wife's fortune – put by Forbes at $2.9bn – are entirely separate. Under Russian law Luzhkov is entitled to half of her assets, it said. It showed footage of the couple's mansion in Rublyovka, Moscow's most elite neighbourhood. The Luzhkovs' stable is many times larger than the average Muscovite's flat.

Luzhkov has yet to respond directly to the attacks. After the first broadcast he insisted he would see out his term in office, which is due to finish in June 2011. Over the weekend his supporters took to the airwaves, saying the mayor was doing a good job.

Baturina has previously rejected allegations that her husband's job had helped her to amass her wealth. She described claims by a former business partner that "no major project can succeed in Moscow without her backing" as "the exact opposite of reality".

 The campaign to oust Moscow's mayor unites the Kremlin and Russia's liberals, traditional enemies. Several people were arrested today after riot police broke up a small anti-Luzhkov rally outside the mayor's office in central Moscow. The protesters' slogans included "Moscow without Luzhkov" and "Give us back our city".

Most experts now believe Luzhkov, who is 74, will be forced to retire next summer. But previous predictions of his removal have not come to pass, partially because Luzhkov has repeatedly fixed a huge vote for United Russia, the ruling pro-Kremlin party, during city and national elections.



Tags: Moscow Kremlin Luzhkov   

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