All eyes on Russia tandem as Moscow mayor clings to power

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As Moscow's mayor defiantly clings to power, his fight for political survival is widely seen as a test of President Dmitry Medvedev's independence from his mentor Vladimir Putin, a supporter of the mayor, analysts said on Wednesday.

But a Kremlin-choreographed media campaign to discredit Yury Luzhkov appears to be working against Medvedev and shows his weakness as the country's leader, observers said.

Last week state-controlled television channels unleashed an unprecedented media war against the 73-year-old mayor in what analysts believe is a punishment for his alleged attempts to drive a wedge between Medvedev and Putin, the prime minister, in the run-up to 2012 polls.

Moscow's mayor for the past 18 years, Luzhkov is believed to enjoy Putin's support. He has put up a political fight saying he had no plans to resign and brought the spotlight to decision-making within the country's ruling duo.

"The president is showing his apparent weakness by starting this media hunt instead of using his power to simply dismiss Luzhkov," said Sergei Mitrokhin, a former parliament member and leader of the opposition Yabloko party.

The tactic also indicates that there is no agreement on Luzhkov between Medvedev and Putin, he said. "Putin appointed Luzhkov and he does not agree with Medvedev," Mitrokhin told AFP.

Luzhkov's latest term runs out next year. On Wednesday, the Kremlin ramped up pressure on the defiant mayor, saying it would be up to the president -- and not the city's chief -- to decide his fate.

Putin however has not publicly weighed in on the issue.

"While Medvedev wants to replace him, Vladimir Putin feels indebted to him in some way," said Mikhail Vinogradov, head of the Petersburg Politics Foundation.

The conflict, said Vinogradov, laid bare weaknesses in the ruling tandem, including Medvedev's apparent inability to fire Luzhkov. But, he added, "Medvedev could not keep quiet as it would show his political role (in the tandem) was secondary".

"Putin shows that he is not involved in the campaign, but he may come out as a mediator in the end and offer a compromise," he added.

Speaking at a Tuesday meeting of the Moscow branch of the ruling United Russia party whose paramount leader is Putin, Luzhkov indicated he had no plans to step down early.

He earlier complained that while Putin showed support, Medvedev "kicked" him for taking a vacation during a wildfire health crisis in the capital this summer.

But other observers say they are not convinced Medvedev and Putin were divided over the mayor.

"Federal TV channels would not launch an attack on Luzhkov without checking that Kremlin's directions correspond with Putin's wishes," said Maria Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

Luzhkov is in charge of by far Russia's largest regional economy and believed to control many business sectors.

His party Fatherland opposed Putin's government in 1999 but merged in 2000 with his supporters creating what is now the United Russia party.

Medvedev has earlier dropped ample hints for aging governors to resign, with the chief Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov saying earlier this month that governors cannot be older than 70.

Critics have long accused the mayor of illegally favoring his 47-year-old wife Yelena Baturina's construction company Inteko. Baturina's 2.9 billion dollar wealth makes her the world's third richest businesswoman, according to Forbes magazine.

© 2010 AFP

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