Footballing mayor aims to be Russia's president

Moscow's dynamic but autocratic Yuri Luzhkov is well in the running to replace ailing Boris Yeltsin, writes Phil Reeves
Click to follow
The Independent Online
There were two reasons for the grin that bisected the round face of Yuri Luzhkov. The first was the arrival in his palatial city headquarters of the Brazilian footballer Pele, looking almost as agile as he did when he glided effortlessly past the world's top defenders all those years ago. The second was the presence in the same offices of several score journalists, including four TV crews, who were at least as interested in him as in his guest.

"Ah, ha! How many of you have we got today?" exclaimed Mr Luzhkov, as he bowled into the room and saw the press corps standing beneath the chandeliers.

The Mayor of Moscow was doing what he loved best. He still plays soccer, although he is 60 years old and bears more resemblance to the ball than the average player. Meeting one of the legends of the sport - and receiving the gift of a Brazilian number 10 shirt from the man himself - was clearly a moment to relish.

So, it seems, was the "photo-opportunity". As doubts build about the sick Boris Yeltsin's chances of staying in office for much longer, Mr Luzhkov is displaying every symptom of a politician on the campaign trail. He has been coy about his presidential ambitions, insisting his interests lie only within his city, but few of his fellow Muscovites would deny that his appetite for the Kremlin's top job is rivalled only by one other man, Alexander Lebed.

Pele had flown in to Moscow to promote a brand of coffee, a task one might assume the Brazilians are better at than Mr Luzhkov, who trained as a chemist and spent most of his career in the Soviet apparat. But only minutes into their meeting, the mayor began to lecture his guest on how better to sell his wares.

The labels on his coffee tins were not right, he said. The picture of a cup should be made smaller, to make room for a portrait of Pele himself, rising out of the plume of steam from the coffee. "This would show movement, strength, energy, a person at the top of his ability," opined the mayor.

Even Mr Luzhkov's enemies would concede that he is an expert on salesmanship - especially when it comes to Moscow, and himself. Nor would they dispute that he is, even in Moscow's mafia-riddled environment, acknowledged as the boss - a bullying, flamboyant, hard-nosed wheeler-dealer who has become post-Soviet Russia's first American-style big-city mayor.

This year he is particularly busy. Moscow is celebrating its 850th anniversary, an event Mr Luzhkov has seized upon as a chance for more grandiose promotion. Moscow has become a building site. A giant $330m (pounds 204m) underground shopping and recreation complex beside the walls of the Kremlin is nearing completion. The ice-bound Moskva river is now overlooked by a huge statue of Tsar Peter the Great (the fact that he disliked Moscow, turning St Petersburg into the capital instead, does not appear to worry Mr Luzhkov). It rears up against the skyline not far from another of the mayor's pet projects: the rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, levelled by Stalin in 1931.

Work is afoot building a giant roof over the Luzhniki sports stadium and repairing the city's ring road , known as the "ring of death" to those who regularly drive round it. There are new stores, office blocks, and a purge on scruffy, mafia-run kiosks and casinos. Mr Luzhkov last week was negotiating with the US real-estate mogul Donald Trump over refurbishing the notorious Moskva Hotel and the huge and hideous Hotel Rossiya, just off Red Square.

Such a whirlwind of activity has made the mayor the toast of Moscow, as he hoped it would. Each week he invites the press to join him as he tours the building sites, lest his citizens forget what he is doing. lt was the same flair for publicity that produced the cover photo of Russia's Profile magazine last year in which he was wearing nothing but light- blue football shorts, a small Orthodox cross, and a large smile. In November, he made national TV by playing doubles tennis with Steffi Graf.

It has all delivered dividends. Last summer he was returned to power by an astonishing 88 per cent of the vote. Moscow was, it seems, unworried by the autocratic side to his character. Who cares that his police kicked Caucasian traders and homeless out of the city, sometimes literally driving them out of town? Or that non-residents have to pay the equivalent of several thousand pounds to buy permits allowing them to live in their capital, even though this is a violation of the Russian constitution. "Look, he gets the job done," explained one Muscovite last week. "You could hardly say the same of Mr Yeltsin."

But Mr Luzhkov is keenly aware that, if he is to run for president, he needs to build a national image for himself that extends beyond Moscow's 10 million citizens. Mindful of the importance of appearing regularly on national TV, he has taken up the cudgels on behalf of ethnic Russians in the former Soviet Union, in particular Sebastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet, which he argues is on land that belongs to Russia and not the Ukraine. This month he went, cameras in tow, to make his point in person - to the immense annoyance of the Ukrainians.

Exactly when Mr Luzhkov gets his shot at the presidency depends on the course of Mr Yeltsin's illness. He will make a formidable candidate. Last year a Russian newspaper astrologer declared that the next president's name would begin with an "L". It now seems quite wrong to assume, as we all did at the time, that this meant Lebed.