Kremlin fires defiant Moscow mayor after 18 years
MOSCOW—Russia's president fired defiant Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on Tuesday, ousting the man who gave the crumbling capital a modern facelift but was maligned for his wife's hold on construction projects and for 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 been in that position for 18 years.
"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.
Speculation over the future of the cap-wearing mayor had swirled in recent days, forcing him to declare on Monday that he wouldn't quit -- an option that Medvedev's spokeswoman said the Kremlin had offered to him.
Luzhkov made no public comment, but in a resignation letter to United Russia, the ruling party headed by Putin, he suggested there had been an orchestrated campaign to oust him.
"Recently, being one of the party's leaders, I have been fiercely attacked by state mass media, and the attacks were related to the attempts to push Moscow's mayor off the political scene," Luzhkov said in the letter, held up to news cameras by a high-ranking party member, Vladimir Semago.
Luzhkov added he decided to leave the party because it "did not provide any support, did not want to sort things out and stop the flow of lies and slander."
There was no immediate reaction Tuesday from Putin.
For years Luzhkov had remained in power despite rumors that his days are numbered, with many attributing his sticking power to his ability to deliver the Moscow vote for United Russia, which he helped create. Firing him now gives the Kremlin time to appoint a successor who can also guarantee votes before the 2011 parliamentary election and the 2012 presidential vote.
Luzhkov's deputy, Vladimir Resin, was named acting mayor pending the appointment of Luzhkov's successor. Resin, a longtime close associate of Luzhkov, hasn't been named by pundits as a possible candidate for the job.
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 as far as announcing plans to seed snow clouds outside Moscow to stop them from dumping 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 Inteko, the construction company headed by Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, who is believed to be Russia's only female dollar billionaire with an estimated fortune of $2.9 billion, according to the Forbes magazine. Suspicions swirled consistently that corruption by Luzhkov fed his wife's wealth.
"Moscow's business landscape is all about Inteko and its affiliates," Alexander Lebedev, a wealthy businessman who ran against Luzhkov in the 2003 mayoral election, the last before Putin made the position by appointment only, told The Associated Press. "The procedures for construction approval have been designed to fit Baturina's companies exclusively. Baturina has been involved in every construction contract over $100 million," said Lebedev.
Ledebev said he expects Baturina to lose some contracts to St. Petersburg-based businessmen with connections to Putin and Medvedev, both natives of the city.
A spokesperson for Inteko refused immediate comment from the company or Baturina, asking for written questions.
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 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 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 of 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 bulldozing historic buildings 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 370-foot (94-meter) statue of Peter the Great on a man-made island 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 the country 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 2000-2008 presidency and Putin tolerated him, although the two were widely believed to dislike each other. However, Luzhkov's bellicose demeanor contrasted with Medvedev's hesitant reform moves, and speculation about the mayor's departure soared.
On the street in Moscow on Tuesday, 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."
Associated Press writers Mansur Mirovalev and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this article.