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Nearly naked girls overshadow Moscow mayor’s downfall

Moscow mayor gets fired. Then fights back. Female journalism students fight for Putin’s attention. Russia seems close to joining trade club. Sexy spy turns up for space launch.

Russian statue of Peter the Great

Top News: Yury Luzhkov’s stunning fall from grace has captivated Russia, a country unused to seeing power struggles break out into the open. The former mayor of Moscow was unceremoniously fired from his post on Sept. 28, following a weeks-long campaign designed to persuade him to go quietly. Go quietly he hasn’t, giving extensive interviews to Russia’s leading opposition magazine and also to CNN, in which he decried the sorry state of democracy in Russia, and openly criticized the country’s ruling duo, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev. He told both outlets that he believed the reason for his ouster was the Russian leadership’s desire to lay the foundation for upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. Few understand the motives behind his outspokenness, as he told his interviewers he understood that he (and his wife’s) enormous wealth could be at stake, as well as their freedom.

Luzhkov was an immense force in Moscow, coming to power shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and shaping the city into the monstrously schizophrenic capital it has become. It looks like at least one of Luzhkov’s monsters – the grotesquely oversized statue of Peter the Great that sits in the Moscow River – might be the first to go, with the city’s interim mayor saying he thinks it should be moved. Unbelievably, several Russian cities have stepped forward hoping to claim the statue for their own.

Attention has now turned to Luzhkov’s successor. United Russia has put forward a list of candidates, and, according to Russian law, Medvedev will appoint the successor (with, unofficially, strong input from Putin). Putin’s former chief of staff, Sergei Sobyanin, is the likely appointment. Medvedev’s spokeswoman said the president would make an announcement by October 18.

The second political scandal to rock Russia these days seems more frivolous at the outset, but exposes the long-term dangers to the country’s already downtrodden civil society. As Putin celebrated his 58th birthday on Thursday, 12 students at the journalism department of Moscow’s most prestigious university released a calendar in his honor. Lacy lingerie, suggestive phrases (“You put the fires out, but I’m still burning,” for example; you can view the NSFW images here), fawning adoration — is this the future of Russian journalism? At least six students think not, and put out a rival calendar, with tape over their mouths to imply the muzzling of the press, and posing questions on human rights in the country (their version is here). Putin was said to be “more impressed” by the first calendar.

Elsewhere, Russia said it would reimburse Iran its $166 million on the S-300 antiaircraft missile system. Russia cancelled delivery of the system after their shipment became illegal under U.N. sanctions adopted earlier this year.

Money: Anyone who has followed Russia for any length of time will have heard this phrase a thousand times before, but: It looks like Russia is really close to joining the World Trade Organization. The country’s nearly two decade effort has stumbled time and time again. Yet last week, Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin said Russia and the U.S. had concluded their negotiations on Russia’s entry. There’s still some stuff to figure out though — archenemy (and WTO member) Georgia still has some objections, and all WTO member countries must approve entry before it becomes official.

State bank VTB held a big economic conference last week, allowing a slew of officials to issue new predictions about how wonderful Russia’s economic recovery will be (independent observers, like Morgan Stanley, had another take). Kudrin said he expected the economy to grow four percent each year for the next three years. Putin said that Russia’s privatization program — previously announced, with a goal to raise $50 billion over the next five years — might see the state selling majority stakes in some of its most prized assets. I say: Don’t hold your breath.

Elsewhere: Anna Chapman, the “flame-haired beauty” who was expelled from the U.S. earlier this year for her part in a spy ring, emerged out of the blue last week. Where else but in Kazakhstan, to wave goodbye to a U.S.-Russian crew headed for the International Space Station. What? Apparently she was the guest of an executive at Fund Service Bank. That’s a bank that I’ve never heard of and that has very interesting initials indeed.

Putin is infamously short and apparently quite sensitive about it. Read about just how sensitive he is here, in this charming tale of how his minders seek the lovely ladies who escort the prime minister on certain official visits.