The powerful mayor of Moscow has departed the Russian capital for Austria amid a media campaign that many believe has been ordered by the Kremlin to discredit him.
As speculation mounted that Yury Luzhkov's sudden departure signalled the end of his reign, Kremlin sources told Russian news agencies that he "needed time to think" and was on a week's holiday. But there is little doubt that the row between Mr Luzhkov and the Kremlin, which has been simmering for weeks, has now spiralled out of control, into something reminiscent of the dirty political battles of the 1990s in Russia.
His wife yesterday claimed that the media campaign was aimed at sidelining the powerful Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, and smoothing the path for the re-election of President Dmitry Medvedev in 2012.
The controversy surrounding Mr Luzhkov, who has run Moscow since 1992, began with a series of documentaries shown on state-controlled television in recent weeks, alleging that he is corrupt and responsible for multiple abuses of power. He was accused of spending more on helping to evacuate his personal bee collection than on helping ordinary Muscovites during a period of high temperatures and debilitating smog that struck the Russian capital this summer.
A separate programme aired over the weekend investigated the business dealings of his wife, Elena Baturina, who runs a construction company. She has repeatedly been forced to deny allegations that she has benefited from her husband's position as mayor.
The allegations against Mr Luzhkov are in no way new, but this kind of attack would not be aired on Russian television unless a command had been given from high up, and many suspected that Mr Luzhkov had fallen foul of either Mr Medvedev or Mr Putin.
Yesterday Ms Baturina alleged that the campaign against the Moscow mayor is being run from inside the Kremlin by supporters of Mr Medvedev. She said Mr Medvedev's team wanted to boost his chances of remaining for a second term at the expense of Mr Putin, who many still believe to be the most powerful man in Russia.
"There are two pretenders at the moment. And the question is open about who in fact will put themselves forward for the role of President in 2012," said Ms Baturina to The New Times, one of Russia's freest publications. The magazine said the interview was given over Skype from a private clinic in Austria. "There are people in the presidential administration who are scared that when the elections approach the mayor will support Prime Minister Putin and not President Medvedev."
Analysts are split on whether there is a real conflict between Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev. The latter often speaks in different, more liberal language, but he is expected to step aside in 2012 if Mr Putin wants to return. Whether or not everyone in his team would be happy about this remains uncertain.
Ms Baturina suggested that it was more likely people in his camp who wanted to make sure that their man stayed in the top job after 2012. She said it was an "enigma" why Mr Putin had so far remained silent.
For the past weeks there have been rumours of tensions between Mr Medvedev and Mr Luzhkov. When Mr Luzhkov criticised a decision to stop construction of a controversial new road, the Russian President tartly responded that "officials should either participate in building institutions or join the opposition".
Mr Luzhkov is the final remaining "heavyweight" regional leader who has survived in power since the 1990s. Most of these have been replaced, since Mr Putin abolished elections for governors in 2004 and made them directly appointed from the Kremlin. His current term expires next year, but the campaign suggests there are figures who want to remove him immediately.
With the mayor now in Austria, some Russian analysts suspect that he and his wife might not return to Moscow, choosing a comfortable life in exile over potential court proceedings in Russia.
"They've warned him that if he tries to answer these dirty charges in court, they will continue with more dirt," said Ms Baturina. However, she insisted that the couple planned to return to the capital in a week from now.
The political analyst Alexei Mukhin said that Mr Luzhkov no longer controls the city and is unlikely to return. However, in a sign that the battle might not be over yet, a television channel controlled by Moscow authorities promised last night it would show a response to the anti-Luzhkov films, proving that they were false and "made-to-order".Reuse content