It is a spectacle as old as Kremlin intrigue, but new to the Russia of Vladimir Putin.
The country’s main national television channels, all controlled by the Kremlin, have launched a series of blistering reports accusing one of the heavyweights of Russian politics, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, of neglecting his duties, abusing his office and engaging in corruption.
Analysts have little doubt that the reports represent a campaign against the mayor, who has been in office for 18 years, a period in which his wife has amassed a fortune in the construction business estimated at $2.9 billion. They differ on whether the campaign is about politics or money, who is behind it and who will ultimately pay the price.
In the Soviet years, criticism in the official media, however slight, frequently was the first indication of high-level displeasure and often resulted in the target being stripped of power, banished, or worse. Putin, the onetime president and current prime minister whom many regard as Russia’s strongest politician, has prized a vertical model in his United Russia party, and made regional governors accountable directly to the president.
That structure has minimized splits in the leadership. But the unity now may be in jeopardy.
It’s not that the allegations against party co-founder Luzhkov, thought to be the third most powerful figure in the country behind Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev, particularly bother Muscovites. Residents credit him with building roads, compelling businesses to contribute to civic projects and improving pensions and municipal transportation. Russians typically regard it as natural for an official to enjoy some perks on the side.
Luzhkov has sued other politicians who accused him and his wife of corruption, and won. But this time, some analysts say, he and Medvedev may be in a struggle that could cost one of them his political career.
Some experts regard the television reports as an attempt by Mevedev to replace Luzhkov, whose loyalty he doubts, and secure Moscow as a base for a reelection run in 2012.
Putin, who was forced by term limits to hand power to Medvedev, launched his own de facto campaign to take the job back during this summer’s wildfires across central Russia. He rushed to burned villages, offered grieving residents new homes, personally flew a plane dropping tons of water on burning forests, all but elbowing Medvedev out of the news.
Medvedev’s spokeswoman, Natalia Timakova, signaled last week that the president was unlikely to hand the job back to Putin quietly.
“The modernization agenda proposed by the head of state is backed by a large part of the society and the government, and that is why the fulfillment of these tasks goes beyond one presidential term,” she said in an interview with Russia Today, the Kremlin’s English-language television channel. One of Medvedev’s priorities is fighting corruption, she said.
Independent commentator Dmitry Oreshkin said such language could mean only one thing: Medvedev will try to hold on to his job.
“Luzhkov controls a major election resource of 7.5 million voters and he can easily change the turnout and final count in somebody’s favor in 2012, and Medvedev is not confident of his loyalty,” Oreshkin said in an interview.
“Medvedev wants Luzhkov to read the clear signal and go on his own,” he added, saying the president doesn’t want to use his power to fire the mayor, and be held responsible for transportation problems, pensioners demonstrating and banks pulling their money out of the capital.
Other experts think the conflict has nothing to do with Medvedev’s presidential plans. “It is not about politics and elections,” said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political researcher and founder of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow-based think tank. “It is about money.”
Luzhkov is too independent for Putin and Medvedev, Belkovsky said, arguing that they want to rein in the mayor and get a cut of the city’s revenue stream for the Kremlin
In either case, the fires that gave Putin an opportunity to polish his image also provided an opening for the NTV network to launch its criticism of Luzhkov. A prime time report Friday charged that the mayor had enjoyed his holiday in Western Europe while forests and peat bogs burned in the Moscow vicinity.
But the focal point of the program was a short piece on the business success of Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, whom Forbes magazine listed this year as the third-richest woman in the world. NTV and Russia 1, another network that aired a similar report Sunday, asserted that Baturina made her fortune mostly thanks to her being the mayor’s wife, which allegedly allowed her to get lucrative construction deals on preferential terms.
Subsequent reports blamed the mayor for traffic jams, the destruction of historic monuments and the eviction of Muscovites from their homes to make way for luxury construction projects. NTV even accused Luzhkov, a devoted beekeeper, of allocating more money for beekeeping than the needs of disabled people.
The programs were widely advertised by many TV and radio stations, and attracted record audiences. Some programs were repeated.
The mayor, whose current term expires in mid-2011, will turn 74 on Tuesday. He denounced the charges as a smear campaign. “I work honestly and I am not afraid,” he said at a local United Russia party meeting this week. “I will fight back.”
He said that his 47-year-old wife, who heads the Inteco construction company, would be even richer if she weren’t the mayor’s spouse. Through her spokesman, Baturina vowed to fight the allegations in court, Interfax new agency reported.
Experts believe that Luzhkov’s image in Moscow will not shatter overnight. Despite his wife’s wealth, the mayor projects an image of simplicity, symbolized by an old-style cap that he habitually wears. He uses simple language in public that appeals to many, particularly retirees, who make up at least 35% of voters.
On Wednesday, the Kremlin showed signs of impatience. Major Russian wire services quoted a source as issuing a reminder that Luzhkov serves at the prerogative of the president.
If Luzhkov is able to hang on for the next month, it will badly hurt Medvedev, said Oreshkin. “It will mean that he is not the real boss in the Kremlin and that will be the end of his political career, so the stakes are very high now,” he said.
Many are looking for a sign from Putin, who has remained silent.
“There is no figure in Russia who is capable of controlling Moscow economically and organizing elections the way Luzhkov can,” said Gennady Gudkov, deputy chief of the lower house of parliament’s security committee. “Putin met with Luzhkov recently and that was a warm meeting. That is why it is impossible to predict the outcome of this standoff.”