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The Man Who Rules Moscow

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Several times a month, the mayor rolls up with an entourage in black Volga sedans, squeezes his cannonball head into a hard hat and inspects the mammoth, unfinished Christ the Savior Cathedral inside and out.

He studies blueprints and timetables. He barks commands. If work is behind schedule, he pounds a fist, chews out a foreman. He checks to make sure there’s an endless supply of kvas, a beer-like incentive, on tap for the 2,500 builders who toil round the clock. Then he is gone, his motorcade plowing up dust, and the work proceeds at breakneck pace.

Yuri M. Luzhkov doesn’t just rule Moscow. He micro-manages it.

He personally monitors wholesale food supplies for 8.8 million Muscovites (kicking in import subsidies when, say, leeks run out). He prowls the streets, railing against English-language advertising and unsightly kiosks (which are later removed).

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And with an amateur architect’s eye, he oversees the minutiae of an urban renewal as swift, spectacular and widely applauded as any in the city’s 848-year history.

Luzhkov’s style is that of a Soviet boss. Yet his frenzied building boom is a billboard for the new Russia--at once a boastful display of the city’s newly private wealth and a drive to recapture some of its pre-Bolshevik elegance.

To critics, he is the despot of a corrupt fiefdom that thwarts private investment by muscling a bribe or a piece of the action from nearly every promising venture. He is faulted too for trashing the civil liberties of non-Muscovites and failing to curb organized crime.

But in a nation confused by mismanaged reforms and torn bitterly between President Boris N. Yeltsin and a Communist challenger, he stands out as a rarity--a strong ruler who earns popularity by getting things done.

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Polls indicate that Luzhkov, a Yeltsin protege, will win a mayoral term with up to 80% of the vote June 16, the day the country also elects a president. Pundits rate the 59-year-old mayor a serious contender for the top Kremlin job next time around, no matter who wins it this month.

Shunning ideology, Luzhkov writes in a just-published autobiography: “I am from the party of economic managers.”

In practice, he is a hybrid of the Communists and the free-marketeers who swept them from power in 1991; he embraces the profit motive but will not let go of the market.

He keeps Moscow’s land--all 385 square miles--under government ownership, bartering away leases on choice property in exchange for a City Hall share in gas stations, food-processing plants and other lucrative businesses. Pizza Hut and the Radisson-Slavyanskaya Hotel are among the city’s 100 or so joint ventures.

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With favored bankers and developers, who get up to half the space in any commercial building they remodel, Luzhkov is reviving downtown Moscow.

He is rescuing 19th century mansions, palaces and churches from Soviet-era ruin while bathing once-gloomy skyscrapers, train stations and bridges in soft night lighting of many colors.

“He has made the construction crane the new symbol of Moscow,” said Yuri N. Alexandrov, an architectural historian. “It’s hard to find a matching period of achievement.”

How a municipal custodian of vegetables rose to such prominence and guided the world’s fifth most populous incorporated city through the collapse of communism is a colorful personal saga with global lessons.

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Despite his technocratic past, Luzhkov is a political image-maker’s dream. He works 12-hour days but plays hard too, projecting a salt-of-the-earth quality that Muscovites find appealing.

He mingles with soccer and circus crowds and loves winter dips in icy rivers. In his trademark leather cap, he makes the rounds at casinos and strip shows--"to get an eyewitness impression of the new processes going on in the city,” an aide deadpans.

Widowed with two grown sons, a few years ago he married a twentysomething businesswoman and fathered two girls.

While guarding domestic privacy, his public persona craves the limelight and courts celebrities. He once bounded onstage with Liza Minnelli and danced before her, squatting and kicking Russian-style.

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He was born in 1936 to a carpenter’s family in a grayer, drabber Moscow that former Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev dubbed “the model Communist city.”

A streak of independence sprouted from childhood, when workaday parents let him roam Moscow’s streets.

With powder from abandoned ordnance of World War II, he and his playmates terrorized the neighborhood with mischievous fires and explosions, keeping a step ahead of the police.

As a young Communist recruit, he talked back to party superiors.

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A managerial career in the Soviet chemical industry got him a seat on the City Council, where his energy caught the eye of another party maverick, Yeltsin, then the boss of perestroika-era Moscow.

Yeltsin tapped him to reform a winter storage system that had allowed most vegetables to rot, but his scheme of financial incentives ran afoul of orthodox party hacks.

“I didn’t declare war on the system,” he said, shrugging in protest. “I just stood up in defense of the vegetables!”

In June 1991, Yeltsin won the presidency and reformist ally Gavriil K. Popov was elected mayor.

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A year later, Popov, an intellectual unsuited for City Hall, quit in frustration, and Luzhkov, his running mate, took over. Rather than have a new election, Yeltsin issued a decree: His protege would serve out Popov’s five-year term.

Since then, Luzhkov has spent enormous effort fighting Yeltsin’s team of radical reformers for control of the city.

Drew the Line

In his book, the mayor admits to a visceral fear of revolutionary whim. When the Soviet Union collapsed and crowds swarmed to topple its monuments, he sent cranes to do the job safely.

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He also feared the quick, massive federal privatization of property, launched across Russia in 1992, as a threat to Moscow workers and his own power of patronage. He drew the line after the sell-off of ZiL, the city’s biggest factory, sent the auto maker into decline, and he resisted until Yeltsin backed his autonomy with a “don’t-touch-Moscow” dictate in 1994.

“I like the Chinese,” Luzhkov later told a Moscow weekly. “They say: ‘There is an eternity ahead, and we shall take as much time as we need for our reforms.’ ”

In practice, this attitude means that the city clings to all land titles. It means that many of the 3,128 state enterprises are sold after semi-secret bidding among the mayor’s rich cronies for near-market prices--not given away to ordinary Russians for federal vouchers that had been universally distributed. And it means that the city’s construction empire is still run, as it was in Soviet days, by Vladimir I. Resin, now Luzhkov’s top deputy.

Control of real estate and utilities allowed Luzhkov to do Yeltsin the huge favor that earned him this autonomy.

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In autumn 1993, when hard-line Communist lawmakers in the Supreme Soviet impeached the president and turned their headquarters into an armed fortress, Luzhkov shut off the power and water. His emergency grants of apartments to 500 elite army officers helped cement enough loyalty to Yeltsin to roll out the tanks and crush the rebellion.

Critics acknowledge that Luzhkov’s system of privatization raises more revenue and that his sound management of city holdings makes enterprises work better than in the rest of Russia. Unemployment in the capital is less than 2%.

But they argue that the system is inherently corrupt and concentrates wealth in few hands, stunting the growth of a broad merchant class that eventually could pay far more in taxes than the city earns in business. Foreign investors say city officials routinely exact a bribe to launch a joint venture--and sometimes rewrite the contract in the city’s favor when profits start flowing.

‘Basic Changes’

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“The city of Moscow is a real estate development company. It’s almost as if Donald Trump owned all of New York,” said Richard A. Conn Jr., an attorney for the Los Angeles law firm Latham & Watkins, which has clients here. “We in the West look at government as a referee. In Moscow, they not only set the rules, they’re on the soccer field playing with you. That opens the door to all sorts of problems.”

But getting the city on the sidelines, he added, “will involve basic changes in the way things operate in Moscow, which won’t take place overnight. The alternative is with a strong man leading the way forward. . . . I guess that’s an appropriate trade-off. Luzhkov does provide stability.”

While ruling a city where tax inspectors share business records with extortion rings, where bureaucrats become millionaires and mafia dons become bankers, where car thieves plug into police computers, Luzhkov guards his personal image with micro-managerial zeal.

To avoid awkward questions, he gives interviews only to trusted Russian reporters (never to foreign ones). He has filed and won eight libel suits against detractors--including former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev--who had branded him corrupt.

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Luzhkov tells Russian interviewers that book royalties are his only income apart from his salary, which equals a few hundred dollars per month.

“The wife earns much money [in the plastics business], and my needs are very modest,” he said last year. “We are doing fine.”

Once, in 1992, Luzhkov backed down against conflict-of-interest charges, resigning the presidency of a private real estate company after newspapers disclosed that he, as deputy mayor, had transferred to it the ownership of two buildings.

“I am not God almighty to say he’s impure, and I am not his priest, but I look at this pragmatically,” said Alexander Minkin, a muckraking Moscow journalist. “We have a choice in Russia between corrupt officials who are incompetent and corrupt officials who get things done. . . . Luzhkov gets things done.”

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Some things, at least. Thanks to him, citizen-volunteers are equipped to patrol high-crime neighborhoods, and the 65-mile highway encircling Moscow has been improved, making a drive on that infamous “ring of death” easier to survive. Night lighting has lifted people’s moods.

More than 2 million former renters, a majority of households, now own their apartments. And while only the rich can afford to move downtown, stepped-up building of apartments has halved a citywide housing shortage.

City Hall cushions the social impact of Yeltsin’s market reforms with income subsidies to a third of Muscovites, including war veterans and retired people who ride the Metro subway free. It pays its own workers on time--not with the months-long delays common in poorer Russian cities.

Yet Moscow is a far cry from the “civilized world capital” that Luzhkov promises for its 850th anniversary in September 1997.

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Murders have risen in every year of his term. Of the 1,700 killings last year, 216 counted as mafia hits. Blaming 40% of crime on outsiders, Luzhkov’s police in a single 1993 sweep expelled 10,000 dark-skinned visitors from the Caucasus who lacked Moscow residency permits. The police also persecute the estimated 30,000 homeless, who are served by a single government-run shelter with 24 beds.

Motorists sit in traffic jams undreamed of in Soviet days, choking on fumes of 1.5 million cars--four times the number at the start of the decade. In the neighborhoods, people have no idea where to turn with grievances now that the ubiquitous Communist Party has shrunk; no one below Luzhkov and 35 City Council deputies is elected.

Sober Assessment

“It’s become less democratic. First, it’s very hard to reach these people and, second, they’re totally indifferent,” said Valentin Grebenkin, an artist who values the new freedom to sell his work but wants to register a complaint about police harassment and high municipal rent for exhibit space.

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A man Luzhkov’s age, Grebenkin also maintains a city-owned building awaiting renovation in the shadow of Christ the Savior Cathedral. Idling on the stoop, watching the mayor come and go, he has time for a sober assessment:

“He can’t cope with the crime in Moscow, maybe because he is part of this crime. They help him with donations to finance this cathedral, and he gives them freedom in their criminal business.

“But it’s a good thing, this cathedral. He is beautifying the city. He is a good manager. I don’t know any other who could do better.”

In candor, his view is shared by Olga Sergeyeva, a sacrificial lamb nominated by the Communists to run against Luzhkov. She admitted that she is resigned to defeat and noted that the mayor is popular because he is so many things that Yeltsin is not.

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“He is a wonderful manager,” she said. “He has not started a war. He doesn’t appear drunk in public. He has a young wife. He swims in the winter. He plays soccer, not [Yeltsin’s] elite game of tennis.”

Popular and independent as he is, Luzhkov needs the Kremlin’s support to run the city his way. He and Yeltsin crossed swords once, when the president in March of last year called Moscow “the crime capital of Russia” and fired its prosecutor and police chief. But the conflict faded when the mayor denied that he had any designs on his mentor’s job.

As a Yeltsin loyalist, Luzhkov could easily become a target if the Communists capture the Kremlin.

And what if that happens?

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The mayor offered an allegorical reply during a recent ceremony to bless the bells of Christ the Savior--his administration’s $300-million re-creation of the Russian Orthodox cathedral blown up by Stalin in 1931. Although Luzhkov is not a regular churchgoer, it is the most powerful symbol of his reign.

“People remember the lessons of history,” he declared. “No matter what terrible forces come to power again, people will not allow them to prevail. No political party, ambition or dictator will be able to destroy this cathedral and the spiritual revival of Russia.”


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