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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov, NTV Script Anti-Kremlin Protests

The 100 or so protesters gathered in downtown Moscow seemed sullen and withdrawn. From the mass-produced placards to the confused and aimless mood to the lack of knowledge about the events and people being protested, the entire affair smelled of a set up ? one scripted to help Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Luzhkov, in an alliance with NTV television, launched a massive offensive against the Kremlin this week. Or, if you prefer, a counteroffensive ? both Luzhkov and the NTV publishing empire claim to be victims of police harassment because they have dared to challenge President Boris Yeltsin's Kremlin.

Not surprisingly then, rogue NTV was one of the few national television stations to cover Thursday's strange protest ? one almost certainly orchestrated by allies of the Moscow mayor ? over a five-year-old pyramid scheme that has been tied to, among others, Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin.

Later that day, NTV ? citing unnamed sources ? reported that Voloshin had been incensed by coverage of the protest, and in response had ordered his Kremlin underlings to trump up a tax evasion investigation into NTV and its founder, Vladimir Gusinsky. The Kremlin had no immediate response.

Charges and countercharges have been flying between the Kremlin "family" and the Luzhkov camp. The latter now has a national platform that includes not only the mayor's own TV Center, but also powerful and respected NTV ? a fact that seems to have the Kremlin rattled.

The Luzhkov-NTV alliance came into the open over the weekend. On the much-watched "Itogi" current affairs program, Luzhkov made the startling statement that he believed Yeltsin's entourage had no intention of letting Yeltsin step down and walk away from power.

Luzhkov himself has ill-disguised ambitions to be Russia's next president. Yeltsin, who is supposed to step down in 11 months, has said he has a successor of his own mind ? and though he has not said who, it does not seem to be Luzhkov.

The mayor also protested that the Federal Security Service, or FSB, has targeted the plastics business of his wife, Yelena Baturina, for a politically motivated investigation into alleged money laundering. Luzhkov has hammered away at that line all week, painting himself as a victim of state harassment, a man whose telephones are tapped and whose relatives are frightened.

"I would not be surprised if they get at my children, the youngest of whom are five and seven," Luzhkov said Thursday. He also told Interfax that his wife might have to run for a seat in the State Duma, which comes with immunity from prosecution, to defend herself.

The Syem Dnei publishing house, the parent company of NTV and the newspaper Segodnya, has also been pleading persecution. In an article Tuesday under the grimly playful headline "Hello from the Kremlin," Segodnya reported that the tax police had raided the Syem Dnei offices the previous week.

Segodnya said it was the first tax police raid in Syem Dnei's history, and that it came just six months after a Tax Inspectorate audit gave the publishing house a clean bill of health ? and one day after NTV joined the mayor in excoriating two of the Kremlin's most powerful men: oil and media mogul Boris Berezovsky, and presidential Chief of Staff Voloshin.

NTV's "Itogi" ran sinister-looking pictures of the little-known Voloshin, a bald man the station gleefully compared to Lenin. They described the Kremlin gatekeeper as deeply involved in pyramid schemes, like the AVVA investment company, that had swindled thousands.

That was last weekend. As if on cue, dozens of glum and taciturn protesters claiming to be victims of the AVVA pyramid ? a swindle that played out years ago ? gathered Thursday outside LogoVAZ , a Berezovsky's controlled car dealership. They held curiously similar placards that said things like, "Berezovsky is a thief, a thief should be in jail," or "Here are those who have eaten our money," above unflattering drawings of Berezovsky and Voloshin.

AVVA was a consortium formed by LogoVAZ in the early 1990s. Russian media have reported that Voloshin and Berezovsky founded the business together.

Briefcase traders sold AVVA shares on street corners, but few who bought them saw any returns. In some accounts, the fall of AVVA also sped the collapse of Chara Bank, another financial pyramid that fleeced tens of thousands.

But in Thursday's crowd, few of the protesters were in fact cheated AVVA depositors. Fewer still seemed to know what the purpose of the meeting was, or were able to explain why exactly they wanted to see Berezovsky ? and particularly the more obscure Voloshin ? in jail.

The blasts from Luzhkov and NTV came in response to attacks by Berezovsky and his pet station, ORT television. Berezovsky recently called the financier Gusinsky "dangerous" ? on grounds that he has so much media concentrated in his hands ? and warned that a Luzhkov presidency could lead to "bloodshed." ORT, meanwhile, has been airing aggressive reports for two weeks arguing that NTV is mired in debt.

The Kremlin has kept a calmer face. On Thursday, Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin criticized Luzhkov for suggesting his wife was facing FSB harassment.

"I understand Yury Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] as a man who defends his wife, but the chosen form of defense is improper," Stepashin said, in remarks reported by Interfax. Instead, Stepashin said Luzhkov could have quietly filed a court case or a formal complaint with the Prosecutor General's Office.

"But to generalize it all and because of it call for the removal of the official power is totally wrong. It could be understood if it is pre-election rhetoric, but never justified," Stepashin said.

Luzhkov countered Thursday that Stepashin should have ordered an investigation instead of just waving the matter off.

Relations between Luzhkov and Yeltsin have waxed and waned. In 1994, the official newspaper Rossiisskaya Gazeta floated the idea that Luzhkov and Gusinsky's MOST-Bank were too politically ambitious, and soon after MOST's offices were raided by Kremlin troops. Luzhkov rapidly renounced all Kremlin ambitions and he and Yeltsin made up. By 1996, they were endorsing each other for re-election.

Last year Luzhkov, speaking in London, began to run a not-so-stealth campaign for president. He criticized Yeltsin's rule and called for him to step down. A few months ago, Luzhkov used his influence in the upper house of parliament to hinder a Kremlin drive to dismiss Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov.