Luzhkov: Moscow's controversial Tsar who refused to quit

28th September 2010, Comments 0 comments

Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov, who came to power in 1992 while Vladimir Putin was an unknown provincial bureaucrat, transformed the Russian capital into a booming metropolis but also made scores of enemies.

Luzhkov, 74, had remained firmly in power ever since the post-Soviet chaos of the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin until President Dmitry Medvedev unceremoniously fired him early Tuesday due to a loss of confidence.

It was an abrupt end to an 18-year rule that saw Luzhkov at one point unsuccessfully challenge for the presidency but then rein in his national ambitions in favour of consolidating his power over the city of 10.5 million.

The mayor, who burnished his populist credentials by wearing a flat cap and indulging in his hobby of bee-keeping, refused to step down from his post, forcing Medvedev into the unusual move of firing him.

Once seemingly untouchable, with the federal authorities nervous about making any move against an official with his own powerbase, his position became increasingly insecure as the Kremlin sought to freshen up the ranks of regional leaders.

Russian media called him one of "the last of the Mohicans," populist regional leaders who won their positions in the cut-and-thrust of elections and rallied genuine personal support.

Luzhkov was targeted in a series of hastily put-together documentaries shown on Russian television in early September, which raked over grievances such as Moscow's traffic jams and Luzhkov's predilection for demolishing old buildings.

When smog from forest fires engulfed Moscow in August, a Kremlin source criticized Luzhkov for being slow to return from holiday -- a reaction Luzhkov called a "kick."

Luzhkov also publicly opposed the Kremlin by backing a controversial plan to build a motorway through a forest outside Moscow, after the president had called for a freeze on the project.

Corruption allegations have long dogged Luzhkov and his wife, construction billionaire Yelena Baturina, listed as the world's third richest woman by Forbes magazine.

During their marriage, Baturina, 47, has risen from city hall employee to president of Inteko real estate company with a 2.9 billion dollar fortune, according to Forbes.

Luzhkov's city hall controlled a vast budget of 36.59 billion dollars in 2010 as well as a property empire. His deputy responsible for the lucrative construction sphere, Vladimir Resin -- who is now acting mayor -- was photographed by Vedomosti newspaper wearing a designer watch worth 1.03 million dollars.

The mayor's public support appeared to dwindle in recent weeks. A survey by Levada independent polling agency earlier this month found that 54 percent of Russians did not trust Luzhkov.

Despite his jovial persona, Luzhkov authorised heady-handed tactics against grass-roots protests and his openly homophobic comments and refusal to allow gay parades have raised eyebrows internationally.

Luzhkov began work as a research chemist before joining the ministry of the chemical industry in 1974. He was then elected to the Moscow city council in 1977 and later served in the Supreme Soviet, or parliament, from 1986 to 1990. He was appointed mayor by Yeltsin in 1992, inheriting a drab, chaotic city, which he set about to transform.

In the 1990s, his protege, sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, dotted the city with kitsch bronze statues, including a giant Peter the Great looming over the Moscow River.

The pair's most grandiose project was the central Church of Christ the Saviour, rebuilt with public donations after being blown up by the Bolsheviks in 1934.

Luzhkov is condemned by architectural conservationists for allowing the neglect and destruction of Moscow's few historic buildings and their replacement with ersatz concrete replicas.

Wildly popular as a mayor in the 1990s, Luzhkov was seen as a possible future president but he shelved his ambitions after his Fatherland party was roundly defeated in 1999 parliamentary elections.

In 2003, he won a landslide victory -- capturing more than 74 percent of votes -- in the last mayoral elections before the post became a presidential appointment in 2005.

© 2010 AFP

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