United Russia will return Moscow to the Time of Troubles

December 4 might well mark the end of Moscow’s era of stability. It’s 90% certain that the United Russia party will seize control of the municipal legislature on that day – and this election triumph could easily mean political conflict for Moscow.

Throughout his 13 years in power, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has relied on two things: his own popularity with city residents, and the exceptional internal solidarity of the Moscow political team. Luzhkov’s two assets will become meaningless on December 4. The right to elect the mayor has already been transferred to the Moscow city legislature, and this Sunday’s vote will turn the legislature into just another cog in the giant machine called the United Russia party.

At United Russia’s recent congress in Krasnoyarsk, party leaders Boris Gryzlov and Vyacheslav Volodin just about fell over themselves describing the extremely democratic procedures within United Russia. But such stories are only fit for babies, or bears in the zoo. United Russia’s bosses may detest each other all they please, but when it comes to obeying the Kremlin’s directives, the United Russia party is comparable to the CPSU or an order of medieval knights. United Russia members are so well-trained and disciplined that the party resembles a mobile theater of the absurd. At the Krasnoyarsk conference, for example, many observers were astonished by the extraordinary banality and sameness of speeches delivered by delegates from various regions. Only a female delegate from Narian-Mar stood out against this generally bland background; she opened with a lengthy quote from Stendahl, then said: “My next-door neighbor’s never read Stendahl, but she knows that I’m a member of the party and I’m working to achieve the objectives set for us!” All the other speeches seemed to be copy-and-pasted. And this wasn’t because the delegates were robots; rather, according to an informed source, it was because all speeches by rank-and-file party members underwent a preliminary approval procedure. They were first checked by regional party branch leaders, then by federal executive committee officials in Moscow.

After December 4, the situation in the Moscow city legislature will be much the same. Until recently, this legislature was actually managed on Luzhkov’s behalf by three of Moscow’s political heavyweights: Valery Shantsev, Georgy Boos, and Anatoly Petrov, deputy prime minister of the municipal government. But now Shantsev and Boos have been sent into “honorable exile,” being appointed as leaders of other regions. And Petrov’s political power is becoming more fragile with every passing day. By force of habit, people still regard Andrei Metelsky, United Russia’s Moscow branch leader, as Petrov’s man; in reality, however, Metelsky has long since switched his loyalties to the presidential administration. Metelsky visits the Kremlin and the office of United Russia general secretary Volodin almost as often as he visits the municipal administration building. And the other United Russia members who are likely to make up the core of the Moscow city legislature are also inclined to follow orders.

All this means that the Kremlin would only have to make two simple political moves in order to get rid of Mayor Luzhkov before his term officially expires. First, invite Luzhkov to the Kremlin and make him an offer: for the good of the Fatherland, let him do something bold and non-standard. Second, invite the Moscow city legislature to rubber-stamp a replacement mayor pre-selected by Kremlin officials.

Of course, many political observers doubt that the federal authorities would risk taking such a step. The present masters of the Kremlin need to achieve two objectives in Moscow over the next few years. They have to find a new mayor who is “socially closer” to them than Luzhkov. After all, despite all his loyalty to Putin, Luzhkov remains an outsider to the St. Petersburg people. At the same time, however, they need to ensure that Muscovites vote for the Kremlin’s candidates in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and the presidential election of 2008.

These objectives may seem mutually exclusive at first. Besides the published opinion polls being done in Moscow, there are also secret polls done especially for various government bodies. The results of those secret polls paint a rather significant picture. United Russia’s support rating in Moscow is currently around 40%. But if Luzhkov were to withdraw his support, only 14% of respondents would still vote for United Russia. And if Luzkhov switches to some other party, up to 25% of respondents would vote for that party! The conclusion is that it’s in the Kremlin’s interests to keep Luzhkov as mayor until the next round of federal elections is over.

All the same, many Kremlin offials are likely to consider this strategy too risky and not in their interests. They would argue that the political situation in Russia will become more tense by 2007 anyway – and are there any guarantees that Luzkhov won’t suddenly pull some sort of stunt? Neither should we disregard the fact that many of the St. Petersburg team want to be able to redistribute property and spheres of influence in Moscow. Thus, the possibility of the Kremlin choosing a different path cannot be ruled out: Luzhkov would be dismissed early and his successor would try to establish control over Moscow politics before the next federal elections.

Does such a scenario threaten the interests of ordinary Muscovites? Perhaps not. All kinds of political miracles can happen in Russia. So it is theoretically possible to imagine a situation in which the person appointed as the new mayor is acceptable to both the Kremlin and Moscow’s political elite. In that case, no additional political upheavals should be expected.

But something else is more likely: the appointment of an outsider as the new mayor, someone who doesn’t know much about Moscow but has a very high opinion of himself. Potential developments may be predicted by looking at the Irkutsk region’s unfortunate experience. A few months ago, the United Russia faction that controls the regional parliament voted to endorse the Kremlin’s choice, Alexander Tishanin from Moscow, as the new regional governor. And everyone in the Irkutsk region, including its United Russia branch, is now cursing the day that happened. Tishanin, with a poor knowledge of the region, has recruited a team mostly made up of outsiders like himself. And the new masters of the Irkutsk regional administration have no wish to study the local specifics. Instead, any complaints are met with one response: you’ll follow our orders anyway!

Moscow isn’t Irkutsk, of course. The Kremlin will be far more thorough and careful in selecting its candidate for Moscow mayor. But the goodwill of one individual is a fairly weak guarantee. One needs to be ready for anything.

We don’t appreciate what we have until it’s gone; then we weep for it. All of these potential upheavals could have been averted if the principle of direct popular elections for regional leaders, including the Moscow mayor, had been retained. Yet when this principle was abolished, the overwhelming majority of Muscovites were entirely apathetic. It doesn’t concern us; let the bosses sort it out amongst themselves! Most likely, Muscovites have already lost the current round of the battle for the right to have some real influence over the municipal authorities. Analysts say that only high voter turnout, or a miracle, can save the Moscow city legislature from being totally controlled by United Russia. So all we can do is hope for the future. After all, sometimes people do more than weep for what they have lost; sometimes they move on to taking resolute action aimed at regaining “stolen property.”

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