Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 230

Along with the legal cloud now hovering over the various Russian elections scheduled for December 19, there is also a growing sense that the country’s various political confrontations could spin out of control before election day. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the number two candidate on the Fatherland-All Russia coalition’s list of candidates for election to the State Duma, has been under withering attack for weeks from both RTR state television and Russian Public Television, the country’s 51-percent state-owned main channel. Luzhkov’s comments over the past weekend added major fuel to the fire. On December 10, he criticized the military operation in Chechnya, expressing worry about the fate of the estimated 45,000 civilians located in the Chechen capital, calling the government’s ethnic policy “strange” and saying that the pro-Kremlin mass media was worsening inter-ethnic tensions. “It is difficult to say whether these media reflect the government’s policy or the oligarchs’ policy,” Luzhkov said, adding that Russia’s multi-ethnic make-up is “its advantage.” These relatively enlightened comments, it should be noted, are somewhat ironic, given that the Moscow authorities have at times expelled unregistered residents of Caucasian origin from the city.

Luzhkov stoked the flames even higher the following day (December 11), claiming that democracy no longer exists in Russia and that the Yeltsin administration has become an “oppressive regime” which uses “dirty electoral techniques” and has introduced de facto media censorship. It is unclear what prompted these comments, which Luzhkov made to Western journalists. It should be noted, however, that on December 10 the Foreign Exchange and Export Control Service, an obscure federal agency, slapped the Moscow city government with a US$140 million fine for allegedly violating laws governing foreign currency exchange operations. Yuri Roskyak, deputy head of the Moscow government, called the move a political “provocation.” The move followed the federal authorities’ recent removal of the Moscow police chief–another play which Luzhkov and his allies charged was politically motivated. One of Luzhkov’s December 11 comments to Western journalists was particularly puzzling and ominous: “These are the final days,” he told them, “in which we can talk to you and discuss these questions.” (Russian agencies, December 10-11).

Another element in the rising tensions is the fact that both Luzhkov and fellow OVR leader Yevgeny Primakov indicated last week that they would cooperate with the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) in the next Duma. Primakov said on December 8 that the KPRF might become OVR’s partner in “adopting certain decisions and laws in the State Duma” and on December 9 Luzhkov said that OVR and the KPRF share certain beliefs, including the need to return “stolen money”–presumably a reference to corruption and/or privatization results (Russian agencies, December 8-9). The Kremlin and its allies fear that OVR and the KPRF will jointly push through measures reducing the power of the presidency and possibly vote no-confidence in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s government. Both ORT and RTR strongly attacked Luzhkov yesterday for cozying up to the KPRF, and for his December 10 comments concerning Chechnya (ORT, RTR, December 12).

Meanwhile, the Moscow Federation of Trade Unions (MFP) has called for a demonstration in support of Luzhkov to be held on Wednesday, December 14. The Union of Right-wing Forces (SPS) charged over the weekend that the Moscow city government had ordered city workers to attend the demonstration or be fired. The same day (December 11), one of SPS’s leaders, Anatoly Chubais, charged that the planned demonstration is “directed against the mass media” and threatens “free speech.” Chubais warned that if Luzhkov does not disavow the demonstration, “then we will hold a demonstration in defense of the mass media, in defense of free speech on the same day, with our forces.” Yesterday, Chubais called on Yabloko and the pro-Kremlin Unity bloc to join in the counter-demonstration (Russian agencies, December 11; ORT, December 12). Last week, the SPS had accused Luzhkov of having sanctioned a December 7 police raid on their Moscow headquarters. The Moscow mayor’s office denied that such a raid took place (Russian agencies, December 7).

Meanwhile also, Vitaly Tretyakov, chief editor of Nezavisimaya gazeta, one of the newspapers controlled by Boris Berezovsky, warned this weekend that the rising tensions between Moscow’s rival political clans is in some ways more dangerous than the situation in September-October 1993, which wound up in a shooting war between the Soviet-era parliament and Yeltsin’s Kremlin. Tretyakov also wrote that the Kremlin might launch a criminal investigation into Luzhkov’s alleged role in the 1996 murder of American businessman Paul Tatum. For its part, the pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia warned in a lead story over the weekend that Chechen fighters are planning “new terrorist acts” against central Russia, possibly involving poison gas (Nezavisimaya gazeta, Izvestia, December 11).