Russia’s president fires iconic Moscow mayor after 18 years

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kremlin fires iconic Moscow mayor after 18 years

MOSCOW — Russia’s president on Tuesday fired Yury Luzhkov, ending the 18-year rule of the Moscow mayor who gave the crumbling capital a glamorous facelift but was maligned for outdated values and bellicose posturing, and for continuing his vacation while smog from forest fires choked his city.

Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree relieving the 74-year-old mayor of his duties because of a “loss of confidence” in him, according to the Kremlin website. There was no immediate reaction from Luzhkov.

After a series of minor scandals that followed years of controversy, speculation over the future of the flat-cap-wearing mayor had swirled in recent days, forcing him to declare on Monday that he wouldn’t quit. Russian news agencies cited Medvedev’s spokeswoman Natalya Timakova as saying the Kremlin gave Luzhkov the chance to step down voluntarily.

Though Luzhkov’s departure is unlikely to have any lasting impact on federal politics, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Medvedev continue to control in tandem, it sends a powerful signal that no regional leader is indispensible.

For years Luzhkov has remained in place 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. His removal now gives the Kremlin time to appoint a successor who can also guarantee loyalty a year before parliamentary elections and two years before the next 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 an especially tough foreman. In his efforts to exert absolute control, he went so far as to announce plans to seed snow clouds outside Moscow so that they wouldn’t dump their load on the city.

Luzhkov’s long tenure saw Moscow undergo an astonishing makeover from a shabby and demoralized city into a swaggering and stylish metropolis. As 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 of corruption by Luzhkov to feed his wife’s wealth.

Luzhkov’s star began falling sharply in July when an ill-conceived repair project on the main highway leading to Moscow’s Sheremetyevo international airport created backups that left drivers taking up to six hours to get there from the center of town. 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 it claimed was lost due to the traffic jams.

Anger against the mayor rose further when he remained on vacation in Austria in August even as Moscow suffered through weeks of 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 of Moscow, which 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 an international conference of political analysts on 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 itself.

He also inflicted a tacky aura on the city by promoting the gargantuan works of sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, including a 94-meter (370-foot) statue of Peter the Great in the Moscow River ranked 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 desires for Russia to regain an empire. In 2008, Ukraine banned him from entering the country after he suggested the Crimean Peninsula rightfully belongs to Russia.

Luzhkov also appalled human rights activists by his frequent denunciation of gay rights activists — at one point calling them “satanic” — and vehemently blocking of 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 years of Vladimir 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.

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