Russia's President Fires The Mayor Of Moscow

(FILES) A file photo taken on September

Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov (right) talks with Russian President Dmirty Medvedev in this September 2009 photo. Medvedev's firing of Luzhkov ends a controversial 18-year rule that saw the Russian capital boom but also attracted bitter criticism. Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Sergei Chirikov/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's president abruptly fired the powerful mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, on Tuesday, ending the reign of a man who gave the crumbling capital a glamorous face-lift but was maligned for his bellicose posturing and staying on vacation while forest fires choked his city.

President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree relieving the 74-year-old mayor of his duties due to a "loss of confidence" in him, according to the Kremlin. With the long-awaited move, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev sent a powerful signal that no regional leader is indispensable.

Luzhkov had ruled the capital city since 1992 — many say with an iron fist. His departure had been predicted following an article in the government newspaper earlier this month in which Luzhkov was seen as suggesting that Russia needed a stronger leader and calling for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to return to the presidency in the 2012 elections.

National TV channels swiftly aired documentaries accusing Luzhkov and his billionaire wife of corruption, but he returned from a weeklong vacation and declared he would not resign — an option that Medvedev's spokeswoman said the Kremlin had offered to him. Medvedev did not even wait to finish a state visit to China before removing the cap-wearing mayor.

"It's hard to imagine a situation in which [Luzhkov] and the president of Russia ... continue to work together when the president has lost confidence in the regional leader," Medvedev said in Shanghai, where he was on an official visit.

There was no immediate reaction Tuesday from either Luzhkov or Putin.

For years, Luzhkov has remained despite rumors that his days are numbered, with many attributing his sticking power to his ability to deliver the Moscow vote for Putin's United Russia party, which he helped create. Firing him now gives the Kremlin time to appoint a successor who can also guarantee loyalty before the 2011 parliamentary elections and the 2012 presidential vote.

Luzhkov, meanwhile, leaves a considerable legacy.

The stocky former chemical engineering plant manager ran the city of 10 million with the aggressive vigor of a tough foreman. His efforts to exert absolute control went so far as announcing plans to seed snow clouds outside Moscow so they wouldn't dump snow on the city.

Under Luzhkov's long tenure, Moscow underwent an astonishing makeover from a shabby and demoralized city into a swaggering and stylish metropolis. As the prices for Russia's oil and gas soared and foreign investment poured into the vastly underdeveloped country, Russia's capital sprouted gigantic construction projects — malls, offices and soaring apartment towers.

Much of that work was done by the construction company headed by Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, who is believed to be Russia's only female dollar billionaire. Suspicions swirled consistently that corruption by Luzhkov fed his wife's wealth.

Yuri Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina i i

Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, attend a 2008 celebration of historic race cars in Brescia, Italy. Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images
Yuri Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina

Luzhkov and his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, attend a 2008 celebration of historic race cars in Brescia, Italy.

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Luzhkov's star began falling sharply in July when an ill-conceived repair project on the main highway to Moscow's Sheremetyevo International Airport created backups that left drivers taking up to six hours to get there from the city. The airport's director accused Luzhkov of manipulating the project to encourage travelers to opt for a city-owned airport. National carrier Aeroflot sued the city for nearly $4 million that it claimed was lost due to the traffic jams.

Anger against the mayor then soared when he stayed on vacation in Austria in August even as Moscow suffered through weeks of an unprecedented heat wave and heavy, suffocating smog from nearby forest and peat-bog fires.

But the final blow apparently was a spat not even on Luzhkov's turf. Controversy had brewed for several years about plans to build a highway through a forest just outside Moscow that environmentalists wanted to protect. Medvedev in August ordered the project suspended, a decision that Luzhkov criticized in a newspaper article.

Medvedev publicly dressed him down, telling a conference of political analysts Friday that "officials should either participate in building institutions, or should join the opposition."

While many Muscovites have watched their city's feverish changes with pride, Luzhkov was despised by preservationists for his administration's penchant to bulldoze historic buildings that sat on potentially valuable land. In some cases, including the iconic Moskva Hotel, the buildings were demolished only to be replaced by structures resembling the old ones — making pieces of the city into clumsy replicas of themselves.

He also inflicted a tacky aura on the city by promoting the gargantuan works of sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, including a 370-foot statue of Peter the Great in the Moscow River that ranks in some surveys as one of the world's ugliest structures.

Although he did not hold national office, Luzhkov occasionally inserted himself into the country's affairs, aggressively pushing nationalist goals that urged Russia to regain its empire. In 2008, Ukraine banned him from entering after he suggested the Crimean Peninsula rightfully belongs to Russia, not Ukraine.

Luzhkov also appalled human rights activists by his frequent denunciation of gay rights activists — at one point calling them "satanic" — and vehemently blocking their attempts to rally. For this year's observance of the end of World War II in Europe, he wanted to allow billboards portraying Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, but the initiative met strong resistance from the Kremlin.

His bullying ways and reactionary stances had seemed in concert with the tough-guy style of Putin's presidency and Putin tolerated him, although the two were widely believed to dislike each other. However, Luzhkov's demeanor contrasted with Medvedev's hesitant reform moves, and speculation about his imminent departure soared.

On the street Tuesday in Moscow the mood was mixed, with many accusing Luzhkov of abusing his position to get rich and some appreciating the changes in the capital.

"Of course, he is a rich man, and his wife is even richer, and, of course, they did take something for themselves," businessman Alexei Gorlo said. "But despite all the talk about them stealing, for me personally, for my family living in Moscow, they have done much more. I live in an almost-European city."

Gorlo also credited Luzhkov for allowing his business to develop.

Yet others were more critical.

"We've been waiting for this decision for a long time," said Olga Savelieva, an architecture preservationist. "He shouldn't have had such an attitude to the city, to the historical heritage, to Muscovites. He shouldn't have thought only about his own wife and the family pockets that need to be filled."

Peter van Dyk and Jessica Golloher reported from Moscow for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.