Ahead of elections, Russia cleans house

MOSCOW, Russia — At 2 p.m. last Thursday, a longtime architecture preservationist in Moscow got a call from a producer at one of Russia’s state-owned television channels.

For six years, she had been fighting to publicize her group’s cause: detailing the systematic destruction of Moscow’s historical treasures, often in order to make way for flashy new buildings developed by a company owned by the wife of Moscow’s powerful mayor, Yury Luzhkov. For six years, the state-owned channels, from which the majority of Russians get their news, refused to listen.

That is until Thursday, when the producer from VGTRK, the firm that owns Channel One, called, sounding stressed and agitated.

“They had just gotten an order to redo their Sunday night program – two days to make an hour long program about how the mayor destroyed historical Moscow,” said the activist, a member of preservation group ArkhNadzor, who asked not to be identified because of the political nature of the tale.

It was clear the order had come from the highest levels of government.

Since that phone call, all three of Russia’s state-run television channels have unleashed a vicious campaign against Luzhkov, airing programs almost nightly that reveal the corruption and inefficiency that have marked his 18-year reign.

One program focused on his inability to deal with Moscow’s notorious traffic. Another detailed Luzhkov’s decision, widely discussed on the Internet during Russia’s deadly August fires, to remain on vacation as Moscow was overcome by noxious smoke, only to come back and focus on taking care of his honeybee collection. Yet another ran through several property deals that helped Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, become Russia’s richest woman and it’s only female billionaire. Still another spoke of the couple’s involvement in approving an unpopular highway due to cut through a forest in northern Moscow.

On the surface, the footage seems like scandalous stuff, part of a sustained campaign designed to force the powerful 73-year-old mayor from office as the country gears up for parliamentary elections next fall and a presidential vote in early 2012.

But the real drive for the campaign may be even darker.

“What we see in public, which is a shameless, cynical campaign to vilify the mayor is but a small fraction of what is really going on,” said Masha Lipman, an analyst with Moscow’s Carnegie Center.

Luzhkov, who has governed Moscow since 1992, has repeatedly battled rumors that his reign is at a near-end, but this is the first time such a public campaign has been waged.

“It is ironic that it looks to be a public campaign when in fact the audience is not the public,” she said.

The allegations depicted in the TV programs are relatively vague and well known. Baturina’s wealth is an open fact — with an estimated fortune of $2.9 billion, Forbes magazine named her the world’s third wealthiest woman earlier this year. Moscow’s traffic collapse is obvious and widely denounced by its residents.

“We’re not talking about anything new here,” said the architecture activist who was interviewed last week for an anti-Luzhkov program. “We understood that our professional themes were covering some political theme,” the activist said.

In fact, the Kremlin needs no political campaign to get rid of Luzhkov.

“Luzhkov is not an elected official, the public will not vote for him,” noted Lipman. “It’s up to the Kremlin to appoint governors and it’s up to the Kremlin to dismiss them.”

Luzhkov, who, like the mayor of St. Petersburg, technically holds the post of governor thanks to the cities’ importance and gubernatorial elections were abolished in 2004 in order to centralize the Kremlin’s control over the country.

What the Kremlin appears to want is for Luzhkov to go of his own accord – to submit his resignation willfully and ensure a smooth transition of power, one that avoids any hint of the instability that Russia’s ruling duo has made it their goal to avoid.

As Russia gets ready to gear up for its latest round of managed elections, Lipman said it is keen to have in place loyal governors that can serve up the needed election results and see their regions through the next president’s term. President Dmitry Medvedev has recently replaced several, including the long-serving head of oil-rich Bashkortostan, who also refused to go quietly and was subjected to a dirty campaign before stepping down in July.

Last week, the head of Kalmykia, a mainly Buddhist southern republic, said he would leave office after 17 years in power, saying he “agreed that new people should come in.” (He made no mention of his experience with aliens.)

Luzhkov is one of the few of the old guard who remains, and his hold over Moscow – the epicenter of Russian political and business life — is lucrative. Some Russian analysts said that he is looking for a more generous “retirement package” than the one offered by the Kremlin — one that would allow him (and his wife) to keep growing their wealth, without fear of prosecution.

The campaign also allows rising discontent — with authorities’ handling of the fires, of the road that cuts through a Moscow forest — to be put on the mayor, rather than higher authorities (never mind the fact that Luzhkov is a founding member of United Russia, the ruling party, and a member of its High Council).

In Moscow, Luzhkov’s departure is taken as a given — either soon or, as is appearing less likely, when his term expires next year. Russia’s chattering classes have begun floating potential successors, including Sergei Sobyanin, a deputy prime minister and a former chief of the presidential administration during Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s reign in the Kremlin.

Some Russian media have seen the campaign against Luzhkov as the sign of a growing split between Putin and Medvedev, as the two move closer to a decision over who will run for president in 2012, suggesting that Medvedev has launched the anti-Luzhkov attack without his prime minister’s approval.

“I can imagine Putin doing things without Medvedev’s approval as Putin is the stronger of the two,” said Lipman. “Medvedev doing things without Putin’s approval, if they are of any importance? I find that hard to believe.”

Indeed, the state-run TV channels, an important source of the authorities’ power, are believed to be run by Vladislav Surkov, a Putin confidante who oversees ideology and now serves as deputy head of the presidential administration.

Meanwhile, the campaign continues. The program on architectural destruction was postponed and is due to be shown on Sunday night on Channel One, in an hour-long “investigative piece” by Maria Sittel, Russia’s leading anchor.

That is, if Luzhkov doesn’t step down before then. Signs seem to say he won’t. On Monday, the mayor and his wife said they would file suit against state-run television. As they say on TV, to be continued.