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Published: Sunday, 1/9/2005

Moscow next morsel for President Putin

Happy belated New Year to you! What's your New Year's resolution? Mine is to eat less and work out more. It's pretty mundane, though I am no exception in this respect.

Not so Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There are indications that the judo master has given himself a promise to gobble up the city of Moscow.

I fear his goal is to see to it that Moscow falls under direct federal control and shares the fate of Russia's provinces and its lucrative oil companies.


  • Mr. Putin's "economic reforms" have so far amounted to nationalization of most lucrative private business sectors, such as television and oil industry and centralization of political and economic control.

  • Moscow is by far Russia's most prosperous city. Effectively run by Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, the city is a beautiful facade on the largely decrepit Russia. It would make nice "evidence" of the "effectiveness" of Mr. Putin's policies.

  • With major Putin opposition leaders either behind bars, destitute, or in self-imposed exile, popular Mayor Luzhkov, who in 1996 ran for president and lost to former president Boris Yeltsin, may be a perceived political threat to Mr. Putin. Mr. Luzhkov, who turns 70 next year, told Russia's Izvestia that he plans to finish serving his term as mayor, which expires at the end of 2007, and then retire. Though most Moscow government insiders believe him, the suspicious KGB-officer-turn president may fear that Mr. Luzhkov may still be entertaining presidential ambitions.

    Moreover, Mr. Luzhkov, who in the past was careful to refrain from criticizing Mr. Putin and his policies, delivered a fiery speech at the governors' meeting in Moscow.

    The president has launched a plan to strip the publicly elected governors - and as mayor of Moscow, Mr. Luzhkov has the status of one - of their independence from the Kremlin by introducing the practice of nominating them. The docile parliament members and the governors have mostly kept quiet or made obliging noises, so few in Moscow doubt that the measure submitted by Mr. Putin to the parliament last month will pass.

    Obviously having little to lose and convinced of Mr. Putin's intention to prevent him from finishing his term, Mr. Luzhkov rightly called the Kremlin's (read "Mr. Putin's") intentions anti-constitutional.

    Mr. Putin can't sack Mr. Luzhkov. What he can do is use the "independent Russian judiciary" to jail him under some pretext or other. The state television has promptly launched a smear campaign against Mr. Luzhkov, accusing him of disregard to Russian historical building preservation laws.

    It will be a pity if Mr. Putin's zeal in restoring the centralized state casts Moscow back into its decrepit condition, Soviet-style.

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