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A new mayor for Moscow?

It’s looking increasingly likely that within the next few hours, Moscow will have a new mayor, putting an end to the 18-year reign of Yury Luzhkov.

The Russian press is rife with speculation that Luzhkov, subject to a particularly public and dirty discreditation campaign, has finally caved in to the Kremlin and agreed to step down. Some say it could happen Monday, when the beleaguered mayor returns from a curiously timed week-long vacation in Austria. His likely replacement (and my longtime pick) is Sergei Sobyanin, a close ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former head of his presidential administration and current deputy prime minister. Some say the mayoral post will be split in two, allowing a Luzhkov ally to gain a degree of power (as well, one assumes, the ability to ensure that Luzhkov and his wife and his friends manage to hold on to the billions of dollars they accumulated during his nearly two decade-long leadership).

It’s all been a particularly exciting bit of political theater in a country where power struggles remain firmly shut behind the Kremlin’s gilded doors. Maybe it’s the lack of practice in witnessing such fights that’s left so much of the Western commentariat struggling.

Some have suggested the Kremlin’s displeasure with Luzhkov was borne of an article he wrote in early September about a controversial new highway in northern Moscow, in which he criticized President Dmitry Medvedev and, subtly, supported Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Others see the struggle as a sign that the Kremlin’s powerful chief ideologue has decided to throw his weight behind modernizing Medvedev, leaving strongman Putin in the dust.

The fact is, Russia has a long election season ahead of it. There are local elections coming up in early October, followed by national parliamentary elections late next year and a presidential vote in March 2012.

The ruling party is nervous and rightly so. On paper, ratings for Putin, Medvedev and the ruling party, United Russia, remain high. But I can’t remember the last time I met someone who really supported them. A quick trip to three Russian villages (stories up soon!) last week, showed support for the party leadership declining so much that local officials made sure, even if they were party members, to distance themselves from identifying with it. So the party will have to manipulate its support (the last time that happened Luzhkov was just a bit too obvious about it). They need all the pieces in place in time for that to happen. Luzhkov’s term expires just before the national parliamentary elections next year. Why add more chaos to the mix when they can take care of it now?

Russia’s opposition is trying to seize on the feeling of public discontent with the whole affair. On Saturday afternoon, around 1,500 people gathered under sunny skies in Moscow to call on the Kremlin to reinstate elections for Moscow’s mayor. In a society that’s politically apathetic by design, the turnout was relatively impressive, particularly since it included many young and middle class people, who don’t usually attend such things. The opposition activists have no illusions about their strength or influence, but sense that if there’s a time to grab on to an issue it is now. “The Kremlin tells us Luzhkov is a thief — thanks, we know,” opposition leader Ilya Yashin told the crowd. “And we know the next mayor will be no better.”