Kremlin naming of Moscow mayor highlights democratic decline

21st October 2010, Comments 0 comments

The Kremlin's installation of a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as the new mayor of Moscow highlights how democracy in Russia has declined in the last 10 years, analysts said.

Sobyanin, Putin's former chief of staff, was named mayor Thursday after a vote in Moscow's local parliament that was a mere formality with only the marginalised former Communists voting against.

Speaker after speaker lavished praise on Sobyanin and deputies burst into applause at key moments, in a debate which bore all the hallmarks of a highly choreographed set-piece.

With Sobyanin in place, Russia puts itself on the same level as China in not electing the mayor of its capital, unlike all the big Western powers against which Russia likes to measure itself.

Former mayor Yury Luzhkov, in power for 18 years, was one of the last heavyweights in Russia's political scene who had the ability to stand up to the Kremlin, but was fired in September by President Dmitry Medvedev.

His firing and replacement without an election became possible in 2004, when then-president Putin introduced reforms removing direct elections for the mayor and regional governors, instead making them Kremlin appointments.

In a country where control had already been re-established over the media and the opposition marginalised, the move removed a potential counter-weight to the Kremlin's power.

Now Moscow and its over 10 million residents have for the first time fallen under the new system.

Russian authorities had until now been satisfied with simply prolonging the mandate of Luzhkov, who despite accusations of corruption maintained some legitimacy from having won previous elections.

"One can sense when things don't feel right, and people are beginning to feel that" in Moscow, said political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin.

"It must be clear who the mayor answers to for his decisions: the bosses who named him or the people who elected him," said Oreshkin, a liberal analyst and columnist.

Analysts said Sobyanin -- an apparatchik from Siberia whose main qualification seems to be his association with Putin -- would have been hard-pressed to get elected to the post.

"Sergei Sobyanin is a pure bureaucrat, a civil servant from Putin's inner circle, and not a politician," said Lev Gudkov, a sociologist with the Levada Centre.

According to polls of their readers conducted by liberal newspaper Kommersant and web site, Sobyanin would have only received 2.8 percent of the vote if an election had taken place.

The readers would have instead elected, with 45 percent of the vote, a 35-year-old lawyer and former member of the Yabloko opposition party, Andrei Navalny.

With the liberal opposition not represented in the Moscow parliament, ironically it was left to the Communists -- the remnant of the party that once ruled the entire Soviet Union -- to gripe about the methods used.

"In reality, Muscovites don't have a choice, everything has been decided behind closed doors," said Andrei Klychkov, who leads a group of just three Communist deputies in the regional parliament.

Gudkov said Sobyanin's nomination was aimed at securing the current leadership's power over the Russian capital ahead of parliamentary elections due next year and a presidential election in 2012.

"He was named with just one goal: to make Moscow more controllable and ensure future elections," he said.

Sobyanin's nomination -- to what opposition newspaper New Times called "the third most important post in the country" -- was also another signal that Putin, who has hinted at making another run for the presidency, remains Russia's most powerful figure.

"Sobyanin --- is a 100 percent Putin man and it is to Putin that he owes his federal career," the daily Vedomosti wrote.

© 2010 AFP

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