Luzhkov Starts Kremlin Race Far Too Early

The four-day holiday break was marked by unusual political activity not only on the part of leftist forces, but also of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, a politician not usually noted for his ties to the left. Last week, Luzhkov categorically attacked the young reformers in the government on such questions as housing reform, union with Belarus and the results of privatization.


The mayor's call for a reassessment of privatization could be explained by his longstanding antipathy toward the young father of privatization, First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. But the attack on his former fellow governor, First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, came as a complete surprise to many, including Nemtsov himself.


First Luzhkov accused Nemtsov of "regional protectionism," saying government officials should not only travel in Volgas but Moskviches as well. "Nemtsov is vice premier of the federal government, and not a representative of the Nizhny Novgorod oblast in the government," said Luzhkov.


Then Luzhkov strongly criticized plans for utilities reform, of which Nemtsov is responsible, saying Moscow would not follow through with such reform. Many saw this "leftist" speech of Luzhkov as the start of his pre-election campaign. Moreover, his rapprochement with the opposition on such sensitive questions is seen as an attempt to lure away a part of the electorate that is not firmly in the hands of Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov.


If it is true that Luzhkov is trying to gather support for future presidential elections, then either the mayor believes the vote will take place earlier than 2000 or he is a weak political strategist, since he has begun his campaign too early.


Nonetheless, judging from a conversation with Nemtsov this Sunday, the first deputy prime minister greeted the mayor's words about official cars with approval. "I am all for using, instead of Mercedes and Audis, not only Volgas but Moskviches or any other Russian cars that win in a competition for fulfilling the functions of cars for officials," said Nemtsov. "I would only like to point out that Luzhkov himself drives in a Volga, as do I."


As to Luzhkov's statements on housing reform, Nemtsov is bewildered. And he has good reason to be. Together with Luzhkov and St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, they reached an agreement at the start of the year on housing reforms, since the federal government had not had the courage to begin them. It was Luzhkov and Nemtsov this February who spoke before the Federation Council about the need for these reforms.


Moscow spends more money from the city budget for housing subsidies than any other. These expenditures come to more than 168,000 rubles ($29) a month per city inhabitant. In St. Petersburg, the expenditures are less than half that figure -- 61,000 rubles.


The relatively prosperous Moscow needs utilities reform no less, if not more, than the rest of Russia, which spends more on housing subsidies than on the army and weapons.


It is hard to believe that the experienced Moscow mayor does not understand this. One can only suppose that Luzhkov has truly begun to collect votes. Or perhaps he is simply jealous of Nemtsov, whom the president has directly named to be his successor?





Mikhail Berger is economics editor of Izvestia.