Kremlin ramps up pressure on embattled Moscow mayor

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The Kremlin on Wednesday ramped up pressure on the embattled Moscow mayor, saying it would be up to the president -- and not the city's chief -- to decide his fate.

Russia's top television channels late last week unleashed an all-out media war against Yury Luzhkov and his billionaire wife.

Analysts say it is a punishment for his alleged attempts to drive a wedge between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the run-up to 2012 polls.

The defiant mayor, whose latest term ends next year, responded to criticism by indicating he had no plans to step down early.

"The issue of continuing service of the Moscow mayor is something decided by the Kremlin, not Luzhkov," an unidentified official with the Kremlin told Russian agencies on Wednesday.

By law, the president of Russia can fire a regional head on grounds of loss of trust or failing to meet his responsibilities.

Business daily Vedomosti, quoting sources at the Kremlin and the ruling United Russia party, said earlier in the day that the question of the 73-year old mayor's early retirement had already been settled.

Analysts say the unprecedented mass media exposes by the country's state-controlled channels appear to be a Kremlin-choreographed attempt to drive Luzhkov from power.

Observers say however that there is no agreement between Medvedev and his mentor Putin on whether Luzhkov should retire early.

Putin, considered the country's paramount leader, has yet to weigh in on the political battle over Luzhkov's seat.

Many see the uncertainty surrounding Luzhkov's fight for political survival as a major litmus test of Medvedev's independence.

They argue that if the Kremlin did not fire Luzhkov it would be clear who remains the country's top boss.

Luzhkov, speaking Tuesday evening at a meeting of the Moscow branch of the United Russia party whose paramount leader is Putin, called his media critics "scoundrels" who use "dirty, toilet-type information" in their attacks.

The party's Moscow branch has pledged allegiance to Luzhkov, calling him "the only party leader" in Moscow it would support.

Online newspaper Gazeta.Ru, citing a Kremlin source, said the presidential administration had considered his speech "a declaration of war."

© 2010 AFP

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