The powerful former mayor of Moscow says he plans to form a new political movement to bring democracy back to Russia, nearly one week after he was fired by President Dmitry Medvedev.
Yury Luzhkov, who during his 18 years as mayor saw Moscow become the epicentre of Russia's corruption and lawlessness, made the announcement in an interview published on Monday in the opposition weekly magazine, The New Times.
"Our society is governed by undemocratic laws," Mr Luzhkov told the magazine during his first interview since being fired last Tuesday. He said that through the movement – which he stresses will not be a registered political party and will not take part in elections – he will "work so that the laws of democratic society appear" in Russia.
The move, and the interview, are likely to rile the Kremlin, which forced Mr Luzhkov from power following a failed campaign designed to coerce him into quitting peacefully. Mr Luzhkov told the magazine he believed the Russian leadership forced his ouster ahead of parliamentary elections slated for late 2011, when his term would have expired, and a presidential vote in 2012.
"I didn't see any sort of questions, any sort of complaints against me," Mr Luzhkov said. "I saw the start of an election campaign, during which Moscow must vote as the high leadership wants," he said. "They needed their own man."
Mr Luzhkov, a founding member of United Russia, has consistently delivered stellar results for the ruling party, leading to accusations of fraud from opposition parties during the last round of parliamentary elections in October 2009. Yet at 74, he was unlikely to be reappointed at the end of his term, analysts say, leading to a potentially chaotic handover of power during elections.
Mr Luzhkov stepped back from earlier claims that he would challenge his firing in court, decrying Russia's politicised justice system. "I don't believe that this Supreme Court will take a decision that would go against the President's order," he said. Mr Medvedev has yet to explain why he fired the mayor, saying only that he had "lost confidence" in him.
It remains unclear whether the Russian leadership will investigate Mr Luzhkov or his billionaire wife Yelena Baturina, head of Moscow's most powerful construction firm, Inteko.
Despite his attempts to talk up democracy and freedom, Mr Luzhkov found a cold welcome among Russia's opposition. "He was one of the author's of the current politics of limiting democracy and the freedom of citizens," Vladimir Ryzhkov, a member of the opposition Solidarity movement, told Russian newspaper Vedomosti. "That's the moral foundation on which he can now go and say: 'I'm for democracy!' while for 10 years with [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin he suffocated it?" Many had speculated that Mr Luzhkov and his wife would flee Russia. Ms Baturina has denied reports that she has begun moving her assets out of the country. Forbes estimated her wealth last year at $2.9bn (£1.8bn), making her the world's third-richest woman.
Mr Luzhkov denied that her wealth resulted from corruption.
"Whatever has been said or written, we are honest people," he said. "Inteko and Elena, that is, my wife, have an honest business – the most honest and most transparent of all those, well, at the very least, that run a construction business."
It appears Mr Luzhkov's contentious legacy is already being undone. Moscow's interim mayor, Vladimir Resin, has decided to remove one of the capital's greatest eyesores – an oversized statute of Tsar Peter the Great, who infamously hated Moscow – from the centre of the city, a source told the Interfax news agency.