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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov, Moscow's Mayor or Monarch?

He may be just the mayor of Moscow, but as he heads into his third year in office, Yury Luzhkov has been acting more like the authoritarian head of a small independent state.


He promises aid to foreign countries, his top aides have titles like prime minister and deputy prime minister, and he has demanded that foreigners from the former Soviet Union show visas at the city limits as if crossing an international border.


Ruling Moscow largely by decree with an impunity that must be the envy of the embattled President Boris Yeltsin, Luzhkov has managed to isolate himself from both national politics and national policies.


In the last week alone, he has:


?forbidden the federal government to privatize large industries without Moscow's permission.


?opened discussions on a possible "commercial" residence permit -- to be sold for 20 million rubles ($12,000) only to those who can afford to buy an apartment in Moscow, a city official said.


?won a decree from Yeltsin excluding Moscow from a federal requirement to elect local councils below the level of the city duma.


Meanwhile, in his headquarters across Tverskaya Ulitsa from the statue of Yury Dolgoruky, who founded the city-state of Muscovy in 1147, Luzhkov wraps himself in much of the pomp and circumstance of a head of state.


"We have much in common," he told Kazakhstan's president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, on Tuesday, "in trying to solve the problems of 17 million Kazakhstanis and 10 million Muscovites."


Though he denies presidential ambitions, Luzhkov, 57, continually polls as one of the most popular political figures in Russia. On Wednesday, he was ranked for the first time as one of the top five most influential politicians by a panel of 50 opinion-makers, Interfax reported.


Though the charismatic mayor is rarely mentioned in Western media, Luzhkov's actions matter -- as any Russian or Western business person wrestling with often arbitrary city rules and taxes will tell you. As Russia's flagship city, Moscow is the landing point for most foreign investment, the most visible laboratory of reform in Russia, and the dwelling of one in 13 Russians.


According to critics, however, Luzhkov has been taking local politics in this least local of cities in an unpromising direction. Whether sincere or cynical, they say, he wants Moscow to have all the glamour and wealth he sees in the West but to get there by his fiat, not by the more chaotic road of democracy and market development.


In one such decree, Luzhkov last December required all shops to keep their windows brightly lit at night or face fines. He has also asked for an exceptional Moscow privatization plan that would let the city retain much control over land and business.


To justify such policies, Luzhkov often insist that "Moscow must have special status."


Soviet Moscow, as the center of a centralized state, always had special status. Muscovites had food subsidies and better jobs than other Russians, and the city party chief automatically got a seat on the ruling Politburo.


But now Luzhkov deals in more substantial exceptions.


Winning an exception to a federal law on freedom of movement, he has retained a resident permit system.


In one of his most popular moves, he made Moscow the only Russian city to retain Soviet-era waiting lists for state housing.


Luzhkov has even pursued an independent foreign policy. While President Yeltsin tried to stay above the fray over the Black Sea Fleet, for example, Luzhkov traveled to Ukraine and promised to build housing for the sailors.


When Luzhkov announced last fall that Moscow would treat citizens of secessionist Chechnya as foreigners a leading Chechen lawyer said: "He has absolutely no authority to decide such questions. What does he think there is a president of Russia for?"


Luzhkov himself has provided an answer to this question, saying that it is his job to protect Muscovites from misguided federal policies.


On Tuesday, he made it clear that he sees the authoritarian, pro-central rule Nazarbayev as a kindred spirit.


"Not only do we have somewhat similar exteriors," he said of Nazarbayev, whose face is almost as round, plump and smiling as his own, "but we are also in agreement in many ways."


He praised Kazakhstan-style privatization -- which leaves large companies mainly under government control and excludes private land ownership -- and the republic's gradual path to democracy.


"Democracy is not chaos," Luzhkov said. "Democracy is logical, rational, humane laws and the obeying of those laws by the citizens."


Since the dissolution last October of the Moscow City Council, or Mossoviet, the mayor has had an easier time putting his version of democracy into effect. He has encountered almost no resistance from the new City Duma, which does not have the power of veto .


This also gives the mayor the ability to rule, in effect, like a head of state.


"In Moscow," as Luzhkov said in his meeting with Nazarbayev, "we have already parted, thank God, from the slogan, 'All power to the soviets.'"