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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Luzhkov Has a Lot Riding on Vote

MTAn election poster near Manezh Square with Mayor Yury Luzhkov encouraging people to vote. The sign reads, "I am voting for the future of the country."
Billboards around the city show Mayor Yury Luzhkov urging Moscow residents to vote on March 2. But what they will be voting for is not a continuation of President Vladimir Putin's course but of Luzhkov's course.

Luzhkov is hoping to provide the Kremlin with a high turnout for the presidential election and a high number of votes for Putin's preferred successor, Dmitry Medvedev, said a well-placed official in City Hall.

With such an outcome, Luzhkov could convince Medvedev to let him stay on or to choose a successor of his own -- and thereby preserve the status quo in Moscow, the official said.

"If Luzhkov leaves, there will be a huge redistribution of property. Nobody wants that. Moscow doesn't want any changes," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the inner workings of City Hall.

While Luzhkov has said little about his plans, it is no secret that the 71-year-old mayor is looking to retire after leading the city since 1992. Members of his inner circle have said he only agreed to be appointed by Putin to a new four-year term last June to help assure the Kremlin of a smooth transfer of power this year.

Luzhkov, however, has been facing mounting pressure from Moscow businesses and city officials to stay well past the presidential election or to select a successor who would follow in his footsteps.

Luzhkov still hopes to retire, but he does not want his post handed to an outsider, in part because he wants to make sure that his wife's multibillion-dollar business empire is protected once he leaves office, the city official said.

This is where the March 2 election apparently comes in. Across the country, governors, who are appointed and dismissed by the president, are viewing the vote as an opportunity to show Medvedev their loyalty. Moscow, which holds the status of a region, seems to be no exception.

"If Moscow performs well, Yury Mikhailovich [Luzhkov] can go to Medvedev and say: 'You see, the situation here is under control. The percentage of the vote you got was super and the turnout was excellent. Can I stay a bit longer?'" the city official said.

The official said Luzhkov had agreed with Putin to stay until April, but he could reach a new agreement with a new president.

A City Hall spokeswoman said Luzhkov's only interest in the vote was "to guarantee a fair election for citizens."

"We are working to organize the election, like everyone is doing all over the country, and not to help Luzhkov extend his term. This is just nonsense," said the spokeswoman, who refused to give her name.

Interestingly, Moscow is one of the few regions whose leader is depicted on election billboards. The ads, sponsored by City Hall and plastered on the streets and in the metro, show Luzhkov with the slogan: "I am voting for the future of the country."

Moscow is Russia's economic powerhouse, and Luzhkov is well known for keeping close control over its economy. Businessmen find that they need to develop good links with City Hall to work in Moscow. Luzhkov and his retinue are thought to have close ties with major banks, real estate firms and other big companies. Luzhkov's wife, Yelena Baturina, controls Inteko, a giant holding company, and she is worth an estimated $7 billion.

Luzhkov's grip goes far beyond the economy. Among other things, the mayor is believed to control the city's judicial system -- which critics say he secured by supplementing the low official salaries of judges and prosecutors with cash or perks such as luxury apartments.

If Luzhkov leaves office, by law many other city officials would have to tender their resignations -- a scenario that companies would like to avoid because it would mean that they would have to develop relations with new officials.

"I know my bureaucrats now. I pay them, and things are fine," said Mikhail, who owns a chain of photo studios. "A change would mean that I would have to rebuild those relationships once again."

Sergei Mitrokhin, a Moscow City Duma deputy, said Moscow businesses faced many problems that are Luzhkov's fault, but none of them wants "a new wave of velvet privatizations."

"There would be killings again," Mitrokhin said, referring to the chaos of the early 1990s.

The Kremlin would like to tap Sergei Sobyanin, Putin's chief of staff, as the next mayor, the City Hall official said. Sobyanin, a former Tyumen governor, is running Medvedev's election campaign. "Sobyanin would come with his people and get rid of everyone linked to Luzhkov. This would be a catastrophe for a city like Moscow," the official said.

Mitrokhin agreed. "City Hall subsidizes housing maintenance services now. If someone linked to the Kremlin rose to power, he would follow the Kremlin's advice and Muscovites would pay full cost as people do in other regions," said Mitrokhin, who is a member of the liberal Yabloko party.

Sobyanin could not be reached for comment Wednesday. A Kremlin spokesman said no one in the presidential administration was immediately available for comment.

Putin has called on voters to chose Medvedev, saying his protege will provide stability by keeping the country on the same course that he has followed for the past eight years.

The election could also provide Luzhkov with a chance to keep the status quo in Moscow. Luzhkov recently called together Moscow election officials and ordered them to work to get turnout of at least 65 percent and 70 percent of the vote for Medvedev, said the city official, who attended the meeting.

Luzhkov appears to be hoping to avoid a repeat of the State Duma elections in December. Moscow recorded a turnout of 50 percent, with 54 percent of the vote going to United Russia. Nationwide, turnout was 60 percent and United Russia collected 63 percent.

At the meeting, Luzhkov took responsibility for Moscow's northern districts, while Deputy Mayor Vladimir Rezin was put in charge of the western districts, the official said. These areas showed the lowest turnout in the city.

Moscow election officials are also working with city universities, which saw a turnout of only 25 percent.

Sergei, a Moscow State University mathematics student from Ryazan, said the dean of the dormitory where he lives has ordered every student to get absentee ballots to vote at the university's polling station. The students were told that they would face unspecified problems if they did not vote, said Sergei, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of reprisal. He said the students had received similar orders before the Duma elections.

"This time things seem more serious," he said.