Russian president flexes muscles by firing defiant mayor

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President Dmitry Medvedev has flexed his political muscles ahead of 2012 presidential elections with his unceremonious sacking of Moscow's longstanding mayor, analysts said Tuesday.

Frequently dismissed as a mere frontman for a country whose de-facto leader is strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Medvedev showed his ruthless streak by firing mayor Yury Luzhkov who has been in his post since 1992.

The dismissal, ordered while Medvedev was travelling in China, came after the mayor defiantly announced Monday night that he would not quit of his own accord, in an effective challenge to the Kremlin.

It was by far the most significant change in Medvedev's reshuffle of Russia's powerful regional bosses over the last months and comes as speculation mounts over whether the president or Putin will stand in the 2012 polls.

"Medvedev wanted to show himself a man," independent political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told AFP, "He made an independent move which has great risks since the real resources are in the hands of Putin."

Russian media has mulled over Luzhkov's fate since the beginning of September, after unofficial Kremlin sources criticised his alleged attempts to sow discord between Medvedev and Putin.

The mayor of Moscow presides over a vast electoral base of some 10 million people, and Russia's biggest regional budget.

Putin rushed to show that Russia's ruling tandem were in sync on the issue, saying that while Luzhkov had been a key figure in modern Russia his relationship with Medvedev had not worked.

"It was necessary to take the necessary steps to normalise the situation," said Putin.

Analysts said that ousting Luzhkov was a priority for the Kremlin ahead of the 2012 polls, with the authorities unwilling to let a figure who risked turning into a powerful opponent staying in power any longer.

"The decision is obviously connected to the elections," said Maria Lipman of Moscow Carnegie Center.

"The logic is to minimize political risks which can threaten power of the authorities... This is what happened to Luzhkov."

Earlier this year the Kremlin approved when two strong regional leaders, Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan and Murtaza Rakhimov of Bashkortostan, stepped down from their governor posts. Luzhkov proved to be more stubborn.

By law, the president can fire a regional boss on the grounds of a "loss of confidence," and the Kremlin first pursued a softer scenario, hoping the mayor would relinquish power willingly.

Putin issued similar decrees as president, firing regional leaders including Leonid Korotkov of Amur region, sacked in 2007. A criminal case was later opened against Korotkov.

Some observers said Luzhkov's tenacity and resources may outlast his career as mayor and bring drama into Russia's rather placid political life of the last decade.

The mayor may "appeal the president's decree in court, create a political movement, organise mass protests... all of this entirely possible," said political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko, adding that in such a scenario criminal cases will be opened against the mayor.

Exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who turned into a Kremlin critic after a falling out with Vladimir Putin advised Luzhkov to stake everything and announce that he is running for president.

"The only rescue for Luzhkov is to go into politics and announce his presidential bid. Then every arrest and lawsuit will be, roughly speaking, another million votes," he told the New Times magazine in an interview published Monday.

Medvedev juggled the mayoral issue with foreign policy while in Shanghai on Tuesday, hinting to journalists that he may fire more governors and decide on Luzhkov's successor when he sees a list of candidates.

"Everything in this world is made in China, even Luzhkov's ouster," quipped Echo of Moscow radio after the news broke.

© 2010 AFP

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