Putin’s Party Tongue-Tied by Attacks on Moscow Mayor

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party stood by silently as Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, its co-founder, was savaged by the media and came under increasing pressure to resign, underscoring divisions in the country’s dominant party before national elections next year.

Putin and national party officials including State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov have kept mum even after the Vedomosti newspaper on Sept. 21 cited unidentified officials in President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration as saying that the 74-year-old mayor had been given a week to step down.

United Russia, created during Putin’s first term as president, has bolstered the Kremlin’s control over officials at all levels of government. Its failure to take a stand on Luzhkov, a co-chairman of the party’s Supreme Council, signals a paralysis resulting from divided loyalties that may undermine the rigid, vertical command structure Putin has built over the last decade.

“The party is hurting itself with its silence on Luzhkov,” Alexander Tsipko, a political analyst and member of United Russia’s Public Council, said by telephone.

Luzhkov, who has been mayor since 1992, will have to be replaced, Tsipko said. “There’s no way back. This is a PR campaign waged by Medvedev’s team and it could be the ruin of the entire power structure.”

Billionaire Wife

The mayor has been buffeted by a series of critical reports in national media, including state television, accusing him of corruption and favoritism toward his billionaire wife, Yelena Baturina, head of the development company ZAO Inteco.

A conflict has emerged between Luzhkov and the presidential administration, with the mayor accused by unidentified Kremlin officials of trying to drive a wedge between Putin, his long-time ally, and Medvedev. The mayor denied the accusation.

Only United Russia’s Moscow organization has spoken out in Luzhkov’s defense, issuing a statement on Sept. 14 that “condemned the media campaign intended to smirch” the mayor.

The campaign was organized by “those for whom immediate political interests are more important than the strategic task of developing the country” and is aimed at “destabilizing the political situation in Moscow and Russia before the next election cycle,” the organization said.

National Elections

Russia holds parliamentary elections next year and a presidential contest in 2012, in which Putin may seek to regain the office he turned over two years ago to Medvedev. Luzhkov has consistently delivered the city for Putin and Medvedev.

Also at stake is control of Moscow’s budget of more than 1 trillion rubles ($32.3 billion). Moscow accounted for 23.8 percent of Russia’s gross domestic product in 2008, the last year for which data are available, according to the Federal State Statistics Service.

Vladimir Zhirinovsky, a deputy speaker in Russia’s lower house of parliament, said on Sept. 21 that Muscovites demand Luzhkov’s ouster. Sergei Mironov, head of the upper house of parliament, joined the mayor’s critics, saying that negative media reports came as “no surprise” to Moscow residents.

The mayor’s current tussle with the Kremlin is the most serious since 1999, when he had presidential ambitions and his Fatherland-All Russia party competed in parliamentary elections against the Unity movement supported by Putin, then in his first stint as prime minister.

Putin Ally

Fatherland-All Russia backed Putin in the 2000 presidential election and later merged with Unity to create United Russia, the party Putin currently leads.

United Russia’s silence on Luzhkov has resulted from a lack of consensus on his future, said political analyst Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a United Russia member.

“Consultations are under way and people are discussing what the party’s position should be,” she said.

Gryzlov said on Sept. 11 that the party’s Supreme Council, which he heads, would discuss the media reports on Luzhkov. The party released no statement on the talks.

On Sept. 20, Gryzlov declined to comment on the mayor’s situation, RIA Novosti reported.

Analysts said Putin and Medvedev would decide Luzhkov’s fate together, and the prime minister won’t say anything until the current tension has subsided.

“It’s not Putin’s style to act under pressure from public opinion,” said Sergei Markov, a political analyst and United Russia member who serves in the State Duma.

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