On Sunday, December 4, Muscovites elected the members of their City Duma. Elections of this kind usually attract so little attention from voters that the minimum turnout was set at only 20%. The city council has even less power within its borders than the State Duma has on the federal level.
Few Muscovites even saw the need for such a body, since their city has been run by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov since 1992. Luzhkov won landslides in 1996, 1999, and 2003. For the last year, however, rumors have been growing louder that Luzhkov would step down before his term expires in 2007 (Polit.ru, November 30). According to the new law on regional elections, the new mayor will be proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and approved by the Moscow Duma. That would mean the 35 newly elected legislators would decide who would be in charge of the capital city on the eve of the 2008 presidential election.
Luzhkov has never had warm relations with Putin, and the Kremlin is putting pressure on him to vacate the mayor’s office. While personal chemistry is clearly lacking between the two leaders, but the more powerful motive is plain envy: Luzhkov has been far more successful implementing in Moscow the same model of centralized, tightly controlled development that Putin aspires to apply to Russia as a whole. Exploiting the concentration of domestic resources in the capital city and the steady inflow of foreign money, Luzhkov has personally supervised many high-profile projects, from the rebuilding of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior to the modernization of the ring road, and he has never forgotten the low-income pensioners. Legends are told about his fortune and his wife, Elena Baturina, has been involved in several business scandals, but Luzhkov’s popularity far outstrips Putin’s (Russkii zhurnal, December 2).
Seeking to weaken Luzhkov’s tightly organized team, this summer Putin appointed three of his deputies – Valery Shantsev, Georgy Boos, and Mikhail Men – to be governors of, respectively, Nizhny Novgorod, Kaliningrad, and Ivanovo regions (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 21). Unlike Putin, however, Luzhkov has never been dependent upon a handful of ultra-loyal aides, so he found reliable replacements without much trouble. His main goal in this election was to secure that the party list of United Russia, the Kremlin-supported “party of power,” includes his trusted cadre. The official leader of this party, former minister of interior Boris Gryzlov, tried to insert his own candidates, but Luzhkov, reserving the first place on the list for himself, would have nothing of that. The intra-party intrigue was resolved decisively in his favor and, while some pro-Kremlin analysts tried to present it as evidence that United Russia had matured into a real political party, it instead demonstrated that this forum of squabbling bureaucrats did not resemble a party at all (Nezavisimaya gazeta, October 21; Polit.ru, December 2).
The victory of Luzhkov’s list was never in question, but the propaganda machine was still used to full capacity, so that every street corner was covered with political ads (other parties complained that their posters were vandalized) and every household received an unprecedented number of glossy pamphlets (Moskovsky komsomolets, November 3).
For other parties the issue was not to have a minority faction in the city council, but to show their flag and confirm their intentions to compete seriously in the parliamentary elections of 2007, which could very well be brought forward to 2006. Two unexpected developments marked these outsider races. First, the pro-democracy parties decided to form one united list, which was their only chance to pass the 10% threshold needed to enter the City Duma. Bitter quarrels had prevented two main parties on this flank – Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces (SPS) – from passing the lower threshold of 5% to get into the State Duma in the 2003 elections. Facing the prospect of their complete disappearance from the political arena, the parties reached an accord for the Moscow elections, but their single platform was not entirely convincing. The untimely statement of Anatoly Chubais, widely perceived as the managerial and financial force behind SPS, about possible power cuts in Moscow during the winter certainly did not increase public support for this platform (Ekho Moskvy, December 2).
The second sensation was the court-ordered removal from the ballot of Rodina (“Motherland”), a populist and nationalist party led by Dmitry Rogozin. The reason for that unprecedented disqualification was the TV ad “Let’s clean Moscow of garbage,” featuring several unsympathetic characters with distinctly non-Russian features who were eating watermelon and throwing trash. A Moscow court correctly saw in that an incitement to inter-ethnic hostility and the Supreme Court confirmed its decision on Friday afternoon, just 36 hours before the elections (Kommersant, December 3). One odd feature of the scandal was that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, himself a bona fide populist and nationalist, submitted the complaint. He was never particularly popular in Moscow and, quite possibly, became worried that Rogozin, who performed with fervor and drive, would push him out of his habitual xenophobic niche. What might appear even stranger is that Rogozin does not seem to be upset at all (Ekho Moskvy, December 3). In fact, he was not interested in having a few representatives on the city council; his real aim was to achieve visibility and demonstrate that he was not an extraneous political product made in the Kremlin. Now he can launch a major campaign with flying colors.
Perhaps the most peculiar thing about these elections was Putin’s absence. He was shown voting but, probably, would have gladly chosen the option “Against all,” had it been available. Revolutions of any color, as he certainly knows, are always decided in the capital – and his control over Moscow is far from certain.