Moscow mayor under pressure over heatwave holiday
The strongman mayor of Moscow, who has ruled the Russian capital for almost two decades, came under rare pressure Tuesday for staying on holiday as the city choked in smog and wildfires raged.
The Kremlin issued a stinging rebuke to Yuri Luzhkov, mayor since 1992, for not returning sooner, while Prime Minister Vladimir \Putin acidly told him in a tense meeting that he had come back "on time".
Luzhkov, a controversial figure who has described gay pride marches as "satanic", steadfastly refused to break off his summer break even as the scale of the crisis became clear and only returned on Sunday.
"Of course it is good that Yuri Mikhailovich (Luzhkov) returned from holiday and took up his duties. But of course this should have happened earlier," a Kremlin source said in a statement on Russian news agencies.
"The absence of the mayor clearly did not help the necessary decisions being made on time, without delays," the source added.
As Moscow started choking under the worst smog in living memory last week, Luzhkov initially refused to return from holiday, with his aides earning ridicule in the tabloid press by denying there was any crisis in the city.
His spokesman Sergei Tsoi had told news website lifenews.ru last week that there was "no crisis situation in Moscow". It has not been confirmed where Luzhkov was holidaying.
When the mayor finally returned on Sunday, Luzhkov's deputy also raised eyebrows by explaining the 73-year-old mayor had been absent for treatment on a "sports injury".
Looking well sun-tanned and wearing a jaunty white and blue checked suit, Luzhkov Tuesday met Putin in a televised meeting filled with palpable tension.
Putin said Luzhkov had been right to come back and pointedly made no effort to disguise the fact the mayor had been on holiday.
"You of course did the right thing by coming back from holiday. You did it on time," Putin said.
Luzhkov is one of Russia's longest-lasting officials, but has come under increasing pressure over the last months as the Kremlin reshuffles powerful regional bosses.
"Luzhkov is weakened and his days are numbered. The question is under what conditions he will quit is post, whether they are his or those of the Kremlin," Nikolai Petrov of the Carnegie Centre in Moscow told AFP.
Leading pro-Kremlin analyst Gleb Pavlovsky told the Interfax news agency: "Luzhkov was clearly late coming back from holiday, underestimated the political situation and the seriousness of the situation in Moscow.
"Of course, now he is in a very weak position," said Pavlovsky, head of the Foundation for Effective Policy.
The reshuffle has included the departures of other regional strongmen who have governed vast energy-rich areas for most of the post-Soviet period, like Mintimer Shaimiyev in Tatarstan and Murtaza Rakhimov in Bashkortostan.
This has increased speculation that Luzhkov too may be forced to to depart, as he is now one of few regional leaders to have survived for such a long period.
© 2010 AFP