Mayor of Moscow sacked after lengthy power struggle with Medvedev

Veteran accused of awarding lucrative construction deals to his wife is ousted after 18 years in office

The Russian President, Dmitry Medvedev, sacked Moscow's powerful mayor Yury Luzhkov yesterday, in the culmination of an ugly power struggle that has provided a rare glimpse into the insider struggles of politics in Russia.

Mr Medvedev, who was on a visit to China, signed the decree relieving Mr Luzhkov of his duties, apparently after receiving a letter from Mr Luzhkov saying he refused to resign of his own accord. Mr Medvedev said that the Moscow mayor had lost his trust.

The sacking marks the end of a long-running struggle that has spilled into the public domain in recent weeks, as state-controlled television stations aired a number of documentaries about Mr Luzhkov. The programmes, which most assume were aired on the orders of the Kremlin, painted him as a corrupt leader who ran the city for the benefit of his billionaire wife, and pilloried him for remaining on holiday during an episode of acrid smog in the Russian capital this summer, and spending a fortune to have his personal bee collection evacuated.

Mr Luzhkov departed from Moscow a week ago for Austria. Officially he was travelling to celebrate his 74th birthday, and take a week's holiday. However, sources in the Kremlin let it be known that Mr Luzhkov had departed for a week as he needed "time to think", and there were rumours that he would tender his resignation and go into exile.

However, Mr Luzhkov duly returned to Moscow and showed up for work on Monday, telling journalists that he had no plans to resign, and had a busy month ahead, with several working trips abroad in the calendar.

The New Times, a Russian magazine, last night published a letter it said had been sent by Mr Luzhkov to Mr Medvedev on Monday, the eve of his sacking. In it, the mayor attempts to portray himself as a democrat and compares himself to Soviet-era dissidents. He says it's clear that Mr Medvedev wants to replace him with someone more pliable because he is "inconvenient". Mr Luzhkov also states that he was given the week in Austria to tender his resignation but insists that he will not leave of his own will.

The morning after the letter was allegedly handed to Mr Medvedev, Mr Luzhkov was fired, and in surprisingly uncompromising terms. Mr Luzhkov has run the Russian capital for 18 years, during which time it has been transformed from the grey and austere capital of Communism to a glitzy consumerist metropolis.

However critics say he has shown contempt for the city's architectural heritage and run the city as his own personal fiefdom, awarding lucrative construction contracts to companies controlled by his wife. Both deny any connection between her business success and his political position.

It is unclear how much say Russia's Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, who has long been seen as Mr Luzhkov's ally, had in the decision. In an interview last week, Mr Luzhkov's wife claimed that the campaign against her husband had been orchestrated by people in Mr Medvedev's circle keen to clear the Moscow mayor from the political playing field well before the 2012 presidential elections.

It is still unclear which one of Russia's ruling "tandem" will run in 2012. Others have suggested that Mr Medvedev could not have acted without the backing of his prime minister, who most analysts still see as the most powerful Russian politician.

Mr Putin said yesterday that Mr Luzhkov had "done a lot for the development of Moscow" and was a significant figure in modern Russian history. However, he said it was clear that the mayor and the president had not managed to get on, and given that Mr Luzhkov was the "subordinate" in the relationship, he should have done more to ensure that they did.

Mr Luzhkov has been temporarily replaced by one of his deputies, Vladimir Resin. Mr Resin, 74, is unlikely to be given the job permanently, but his appointment is bizarre given the anti-corruption campaign that has been waged against Mr Luzhkov.

Mr Resin drew attention last year when the newspaper Vedomosti investigated the cost of watches that Russian politicians were wearing. Mr Resin topped the list, sporting a Swiss watch allegedly worth more than $1m (£630,000). A number of names have been floated as potential replacements for Mr Luzhkov, all of whom are already in high-profile political roles. Since 2004, regional leaders are appointed by the Kremlin, and not elected.

"Everything will now depend now on whether Medvedev follows this up with court cases against Luzhkov," said said Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician, and author of a book deeply critical of Luzhkov's rule over Moscow.

"Whoever replaces him will be a person from the same system, so it won't make much difference. But if there is a court case, at least the next person will be scared of stealing."

The changing face of Moscow

In the 18 years that Yury Luzhkov has been in charge, Moscow has undergone one of the most rapid and dramatic transformations of any city in history.

In 1992, when Mr Luzhkov took control, Moscow was the capital of a re-emerging country that had little idea where it was going ideologically or economically. It was a period of long queues for foodstuffs, and an absence of even basic consumer goods. Its people were psychologically and economically destroyed.

Fast forward to today, and Moscow has a well-deserved reputation for glamour and excess. Tverskaya Street, the city's central thoroughfare and the home to the Moscow Mayor's offices, has been transformed from an austere street of Stalinist blocks to a consumer mecca with 24-hour mobile phone shops, supermarkets and restaurants.

The poverty is still there if you scratch the surface, however, as can be seen by the penniless grandmothers begging by the underpasses. But alongside the Ladas and Volgas speed Lamborghinis and Bentleys. And in a sign of the growing middle-class segment in the capital, a Zara clothes store has opened on Tverskaya.

Where once the hulking beast of the Intourist Hotel stood, now there is a Ritz Carlton, replacing grim Soviet service with tasteless bling. Across Moscow, tacky sculptures and vulgar new buildings have sprouted up, while many historical buildings have been destroyed or left to rot.

Mr Luzhkov leaves a city that is infinitely wealthier than when he took over, but critics say a bit more care would have helped to preserve Moscow's soul, and more transparent governance would have brought far more benefits to its residents.

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