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Home News Moscow’s taciturn mayor: Putin ally changing face of city

Moscow’s taciturn mayor: Putin ally changing face of city

Published on 05/09/2013

Moscow's quietly-spoken mayor has revealed little of his personality in three years, but has backed Western-style experiments aimed at making its streets more liveable.

A loyalist close to President Vladimir Putin, Sergei Sobyanin has led the city since he was appointed by the Kremlin in 2010, replacing Yury Luzhkov, who was sacked over corruption scandals.

Under a new law, the mayor is once again an elected post, and Sobyanin needs to prove he has genuine public support in Sunday’s polls, with a strong opponent in protest leader Alexei Navalny.

While his predecessor enjoyed making long speeches and touring building sites in a flat cap, Sobyanin keeps both his working and private life out of the cameras. His refusal to take part in electoral debates was fully in character and echoed Putin’s own strategy.

The white-haired career official governed the oil-rich Siberian region of Tyumen before being unexpectedly summoned to Moscow by Putin in 2005 to head his administration.

Brought up in a small village and still a keen hunter, he has lived in Moscow for just 14 years, a fact that has irritated some residents who pride themselves on being Muscovites born-and-bred.

He has not courted a personal following and his public appearances are controlled and kept to a minimum. Forced to chat to toddlers at a recent playground opening shown on television, he looked painfully awkward.

Trying to break out of his shell, the mayor went on the radio last week to sing a song about the importance of the polls, but failed to charm the electorate, with the video gathering over 7,000 “dislikes” on YouTube.

His first major policy initiative — replacing largely tarmac pavements with more permanent paving stones citywide — led to much grumbling and jokes and is still far from complete.

But his makeover of Gorky Park, previously a garish rusting fairground, has proved a resounding success, thanks to vision from a young team led by Sergei Kapkov, a former advisor to Chelsea football team owner Roman Abramovich.

Trendy 20-somethings lounge in deck chairs and chaise longues, take part in free yoga classes, play petanque and watch open-air films in a park originally designed for Soviet workers.

Sobyanin has also brought in a bike-sharing network, like those in London and Paris, as well as electronic pedestrian crossings and universal swipe cards for public transport. For drivers, numerous new highways are due to come on line shortly.

He has closed down many of Moscow’s bustling but crime-ridden markets and ahead of the election campaign made stronger calls for cutting illegal migrants, even though they have continued to do most of the street cleaning on his beat.

He makes clear his lack of interest in effecting political change and has continued Luzhkov’s ban on gay pride events, albeit without calling them “Satanic.”

Brought up in a small village in the far northern region of Khanty-Mansiysk, Sobyanin has served as a government official for almost his entire life, after a brief stint as a metal worker.

He began his post-Soviet political career at the age of 33 as mayor of Kogalym, a Siberian town that is strongly tied to Lukoil oil fields nearby.

He also held several parliamentary posts and was the presidential envoy to the Urals before being elected as governor of the key energy-rich Tyumen region in 2001, remaining in the post until summoned to Moscow by Putin.

He was the first Siberian governor to join ruling party United Russia and is one of the party’s top officials.

Only in the toughly-fought mayoral race has Sobyanin faced his first hint of scandal: allegations by Navalny that his two daughters, one a teenager, own luxury apartments illegitimately.

Sobyanin has robustly denied any sleaze, making no bones about his right to have acquired the high-end apartments.