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Baltimore Sun
December 14, 2001
Mischief marks 'The Battle for Moscow'
Mayor's iron grip on city council is under Kremlin-inspired attack

By Douglas Birch
Sun Foreign Staff

MOSCOW -- Moscow's enormously popular Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has held an iron grip on the city council for almost a decade. But his considerable power over Russia's largest and most important city may be threatened by a shadowy challenge from the government of President Vladimir V. Putin.

The prize is control of Moscow's $8 billion annual budget, vast real estate holdings and eagerly sought construction permits.

"It's a fight for a very delicious morsel called Moscow," says Oleg Lurye, a reporter with the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta. "It goes without saying that they are trying to divide it. Luzhkov wants to keep eating this morsel by himself, but the Kremlin is eager to snatch it from him."

In the pale light of the northern winter, Moscow's voters will go to the polls Sunday to elect 35 candidates to four-year terms on the council, called the city Duma. In the past, it's been a sleepy race. The council has mostly served as a rubber stamp, dominated by the mayor's allies and cronies. Serious candidates have ritually pledged allegiance to Luzhkov, easily defeating hundreds of fringe hopefuls.

But this year, mischief has marked the contest. Well-known political figures have been forced off the ballot for alleged tax-dodging and illegal gifts. Well-financed name's-the-same challengers have popped up to challenge incumbents in some districts, creating confusion. And there are reports that major corporations are funneling millions to some Kremlin-backed candidates, while city officials are lending "administrative assistance" to Luzhkov's favorites.

Never mind, say Lurye and others, that Luzhkov's Fatherland party officially joined forces this month with the Kremlin's Unity movement, created two years ago to back Putin's allies in parliamentary races. That detente was all a smokescreen, they insist, for the bitter behind-the-scenes struggle between two of Russia's most popular politicians -- the calculating Putin and the blustery Luzhkov.

Russia has traditionally been ruled from the top down, and Kremlin leaders have seldom tolerated independent centers of political power. In opposing Luzhkov, analysts here say, Putin's government appears to be following the centuries-old Russian tradition of undermining any and all potential rivals.

'Deeply hidden war'

"It's not an obvious war, it is a deeply hidden war," says Mikhail Delyagin, one of seven candidates who filed for the deputy's seat representing the city's 25th legislative district, which includes the campus of Moscow State University. With his doctorate in economics and his experience as an adviser to former President Boris N. Yeltsin, Delyagin thought he would be welcomed into the race.

Instead, he says, he was targeted by political foes. Last year, he says, he bought and sold some shares in the Kremlin-controlled gas company, Gazprom. He says he lost money on the deal. But during the campaign, someone opened a bank account in his name and deposited "dividends" from the shares worth 25,000 rubles --about $870. Then a citizen Delyagin had never heard of filed a complaint with the city election commission, accusing the candidate of avoiding taxes.

Delyagin says it was the first he had heard of the money. Federal tax authorities declined to prosecute. But the elections board booted him off the ballot. Every credible independent candidate, he charges, has been forced off the ballot.

Nikolai Moskovchenko, one of the most outspoken and popular of Moscow's Duma deputies, has criticized the city's ties to the construction industry and its policy of building luxury housing, supposedly to help subsidize housing for the poor. He has also opposed City Hall's plans to raise rents on city-controlled housing for middle- and lower-income Muscovites. "It will be very, very expensive," Moskovchenko says. "The way they are moving this so-called housing and communal reforms, it will hurt a lot of people."

Angered by such impertinent questions, the mayor had Moskovchenko ejected from a meeting of Duma members -- something Luzhkov had no right to do, the deputy says. Moskovchenko was removed from the ballot after someone alleged that he had tried to bribe voters at a public meeting by handing out bottles of vodka.

"I didn't bribe anybody," he says. "The Sicilian Mafia is nothing compared to what is happening in Moscow."

Today there are only 172 candidates, compared with 350 four years ago. While Communists remain popular with many older voters, only 11 managed to make it into the race.

"These elections are dirtier than any we've had previously," Delyagin says.

The cost of running a credible city Duma campaign has, by some estimates, escalated in the past four years, from an average of $50,000 in 1997 to $300,000 this year. Some candidates may spend $1 million to win a job that pays just $4,800 a year, plus a car, a cramped office and a secretary.

Some aspiring deputies have criminal records; many claim to head dubious nonprofit organizations. One who drives around in a BMW filed papers with the electoral commission claiming that he had no income.

"We wondered how he bought gasoline," a current Duma member said jokingly.

Name's the same

Others challengers have names suspiciously similar to those of incumbents. In District 27, Deputy Andrei Shirokov finds himself pitted against a field of candidates including Gennady Shirokov, a retired Interior Ministry official. Fourth District Deputy Igor Antonov, president of a nonprofit group called Hope, faces a challenge from Mark Antonov, who says he is head of an anti-crime group called Hawk.

In the 32nd District in affluent western Moscow, the incumbent Yabloko party deputy Evgeny Bunimovich faces a well-financed rival with a name that rhymes with his -- businessman Alexander Ronanovich. Ronanovich claims to be head of a mysterious organization called Millions of Friends, although it is not clear who these friends are.

Politician with most to lose

The politician with the most to lose in this election, Luzhkov, isn't even on the ballot. The 65-year-old mayor, a graduate of the Moscow Oil Institute and former state chemical industry bureaucrat, was first elected mayor nine years ago. He has won re-election since by overwhelming margins, in large part because while cities across Russia failed to meet the payrolls of civil servants, Moscow never missed a payday. He is also credited with transforming Moscow into a more cheerful place by doing everything from planting millions of flowers to lighting the city up at night.

But during the 1999 presidential elections, Luzhkov helped lead Putin's opposition. The mayor said on one TV talk show that under Putin's patron, Yeltsin, Russia was "being robbed in a way that is unprecedented in its cynicism and permissiveness."

During these elections, Luzhkov has kept quiet. But few here doubt that the Kremlin is squeezing him. Even many of Luzhkov's political foes find it unsettling.

"I have never supported Luzhkov, but I must confess that the current Kremlin-inspired attack on City Hall scares me," Boris Kagarlitsky, a Moscow-based sociologist, wrote in The Moscow Times. Luzhkov's government has its share of corruption and the mayor's administration is among the nation's "least democratic," he wrote. But Kagarlitsky fears Kremlin "reformers" would be less responsive than Luzhkov to public pressure.

Luzhkov still has formidable power. His hand-picked candidates get what is called "administrative assistance" from the city government -- including, reportedly, free ads in newspapers friendly to the mayor and help in producing television ads from employees of the city's TV Center.

To better understand what he calls "The Battle for Moscow," Lurye of Novaya Gazeta went to political power brokers representing Luzhkov and the Kremlin and announced that he wanted a city Duma seat. The well-known investigative reporter didn't try to hide his identity but claimed he was interested in a political career. No problem, he was told.

"They said my rating was very high, and each of them offered me their services," he says. "And they promised to raise a lot of money, too."

Lurye came away convinced that Luzhkov is headed for defeat. "I consulted with both teams, and came to the conclusion that the Kremlin's revenues were much bigger," he says.

Because there is no public slate of Kremlin- or City Hall-backed candidates, Lurye says, the impact of the election won't be known for weeks. "But it will be clear as soon as the Duma starts to reject Luzhkov's decisions," he says.

What would happen to the legendary mayor then?

"He has two options: to stay as a puppet, without making any decisions," Lurye says, "or he can quit. And as far as I know his character, he would rather resign."

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