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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov Craftily Pursues Presidential Plans

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov's presidential ambitions are just about the worst kept secret in Russia. Though he has not openly pined for the Kremlin's top job, few doubt that he wants it.

The big question is: Where, outside of his loyal Moscow electorate, can he find the political muscle to back a real run for the presidency?

The answer may be emerging in the Federation Council, the usually quiet upper house of parliament, where Luzhkov is busy building support among increasingly powerful governors from Russia's far-flung regions.

There also is evidence that he may have a green light from the Kremlin to expand his power base -- not because the movers and shakers like him, but because they dread the alternative, former paratroop general Alexander Lebed.

Recent surveys, including one released this week by the Public Opinion Foundation, suggest that Lebed, the former Security Council chief fired by President Boris Yeltsin last October, is the country's most popular politician.

In an election today, the pollsters contend, Lebed would easily beat the colorless Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin or Communist Party Leader Gennady Zyuganov. The only candidate within range is Luzhkov.

Though elections are not due for five years, Yeltsin's absence from the Kremlin for most of the past six months because of heart trouble and double pneumonia have cast serious doubt on his ability to finish his term. Lebed says flatly he expects new elections this year.

If Kremlin officials are seeking a successor, they are loath to admit it. "There cannot be any talk of that as long as Yeltsin is in the Kremlin," said Yeltsin campaign veteran Vyacheslav Nikonov.

In reality, though, the priority for Yeltsin's so-called party of power is to keep the presidency from Lebed, an outsider who refuses to play by the rules.

Chernomyrdin is their natural choice, but most agree with the polls: Even if he wanted the presidency, he could not beat Lebed. "He is not an effective campaigner," said Nikonov.

That leaves Luzhkov, who is healthy, charismatic and a proven campaigner. Muscovites returned him to office last year with 90 percent of the vote.

But he, too, presents problems. His enemies in the Kremlin include Anatoly Chubais, Yeltsin's reform-minded and controversial chief of staff. And he is relatively obscure in the provinces, which harbor an instinctive distrust of Moscow. Luzhkov may not be ready to smooth his relations with Chubais, but he is busy working the regional governors in the Federation Council, where he holds a seat by virtue of his Moscow mayorship.

Backed by Moscow's economic clout -- one-quarter of federal budget revenue comes from the capital -- Luzhkov regularly holds court at informal meetings of governors and sits in on committees that have no relation to Moscow.

Insiders say he is building a coalition among regions that increasingly challenge the federal center for control over Russia's resources. He is also reported to have bankrolled a number of campaigns in last year's gubernatorial elections.

Far from objecting, the Kremlin is backing this development. "[Luzhkov's coalition] can help out the federal center at a difficult time by removing some of the financial burden," said Viktor Vereschagin, deputy director of the Expert Institute think tank.

Luzhkov also is proving himself useful by willingly acting as the lightning rod in the Kremlin's dispute with Ukraine over the Crimean port of Sevastopol. He recently made a surprise trip to the city to underscore his belief that it belongs to Russia. Ethnic Russians there are said to be planning a statue in his honor.

Fearful of worsening relations with Ukraine, the Kremlin has kept out of Luzhkov's shouting match with Kiev. Privately, though, government officials concede that they support Luzhkov's nationalist stance -- even in the Foreign Ministry, where nationalism is supposed to be out of fashion.

"Speaking as a Russian, I can say that my personal attitude to [Luzhkov's Sevastopol campaign] is not negative," said one deputy department head, sounding what, in Foreign Ministry lingo, amounts to a ringing endorsement.

Luzhkov is also building clout through his rescue package for faltering ZiL, the once-proud factory that churned out trucks for industry and luxury limousines for the Kremlin elite.

Luzhkov insists the near-bankrupt factory is a victim of the misguided privatization effort engineered by Chubais.

It appears, again, that the Kremlin may go along with a rescue plan that includes a 1.5 trillion ruble federal tax-debt write-off -- though Luzhkov hasn't won it yet, and Chubais is sure to resist.

But while anyone else would have to approach the Finance Ministry with a begging bowl for such concessions, Luzhkov brashly submitted his proposal in the form of a draft presidential decree.

A source in the parliament's lower house, the State Duma, said Luzhkov also is taking more concrete steps by quietly setting up a campaign headquarters. He has appointed Vasiliy Shakhnovsky, chief of the city administration, to run it, said the source, who did not want to be identified.

The Mayor's Office this week denied any such appointment has been made.