Top Putin aide installed as Moscow mayor

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A close aide of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin hand-picked by the Kremlin was sworn in as mayor of Moscow on Thursday after the dramatic firing of flamboyant city strongman Yuri Luzhkov.

Sergei Sobyanin immediately vowed to crack down on the corruption that critics allege blossomed under his powerful predecessor but the opposition slammed the selection process as a pre-ordained farce.

Sitting between President Dmitry Medvedev and Russia's Patriarch Kirill at his inauguration, Sobyanin took in the praise before embarking on the five-year term at the helm of Russia's wealthiest city of 10.5 million people.

"You have a good track record and a good experience to use for the benefit of Muscovites, for developing Moscow," Medvedev said at the ceremony.

Sobyanin's appointment was overwhelmingly approved by the local parliament which is dominated by the ruling party United Russia. Thirty-two United Russia deputies supported the Kremlin candidature in the 35-member chamber.

In contrast to his populist predecessor, Sobyanin is a low-profile fixer brought up in Siberia and seen as reliably loyal to the ruling elite.

Sobyanin was until now chief-of-staff to Putin and should present the federal authorities with far fewer problems than Luzhkov, fired by Medvedev earlier this month.

In a 30-minute speech to the parliament that eschewed rhetoric in favour of technocratic details, Sobyanin outlined his rescue strategies for Moscow's long list of problems.

"The city is missing opportunities... its growth pace has started to slow down, Moscow can develop more dynamically and with higher benefit to its inhabitants," Sobyanin said.

He warned he would carry out an annual audit of expenses and said "every official must know that his work is under the control of the citizens."

In the sole voice of dissent, Andrei Klychkov, head of the Communist faction, scoffed at the voting procedure: "In reality, Muscovites don't have a choice, everything has been decided behind closed doors."

The debate about his selection was marked by speeches in favour of the new mayor and highly-choreographed outbreaks of applause.

"The Communist party made a decision not to support this candidature," Klychkov said in a speech directed against the predominance of the majority party that has "destroyed" democratic elections of regional heads.

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

"It was United Russia party that turned Moscow from a beautiful city that made the whole country proud into a place that is hardly livable," Klychkov said.

The mayor of Moscow -- like all other regional governors in Russia -- is nominated by the president and then confirmed by parliament, a system that replaced direct elections in 2004.

Former mayor Luzhkov also took a moment to denounce the party on Thursday in the midst of a lecture delivered at his new employer, the Economy and Trade University in Moscow.

"It's a servant-party, and I left it," he said, remarking on the "irony" of the fact that he had helped found United Russia.

Luzhkov, who liked to present himself as the archetypal Muscovite in a flat cap, built up his own powerbase in Moscow, posing a worry for the authorities ahead of 2012 presidential elections.

Fifty-two year old Sobyanin, on the other hand, has only spent five years in Moscow and has the reputation of a pragmatist and Putin loyalist, although his upbringing made him an unusual figure in a government dominated by Putin's cronies from Saint Petersburg.

Brought up in a small village in the far northern region of Khanty-Mansiysk, Sobyanin 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. Later he served as the governor of the Tyumen region.

© 2010 AFP

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