An interview with Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov

Our pre-New Year interview with the mayor of Moscow is becoming a tradition. This year he discusses the proposal to move the Constitutional Court to St. Petersburg, Moscow’s electricity supplies, and the outlook for 2007 and beyond.

Yuri Luzhkov: Xenophobia and ethnic or religious strife can tear our world apart just as surely as any terrorist bombs. The fragile balance between members of different ethnic groups and religions must not be disrupted.

Let’s look at the problem of migrants – of whom Moscow has too many, in the opinion of certain politicians. The city’s economy is growing rapidly, and the demand for human resources is constantly rising. It would be foolish and wrong to restrict the influx of labor artificially. So we need to develop and improve mechanisms that enable newcomers to fit in without adding tension or stress to the situation in Moscow. Still, the Moscow municipal authorities can’t do everything. Note that the newcomers often aren’t Russian citizens, but temporary migrants who work here for a while and then return to the Trans-Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, or Moldova. It would be good if they all came in legally. But we’re well aware of the extent of illegal immigration. These matters should be sorted out by the state, but so far it hasn’t coped with that task – it cannot, it’s confused. A few years ago, Moscow had a Migration Department that regulated everything to do with the inflow and outflow of migrants in the capital. We were ordered to shut down that department, and its powers have been transferred from one agency to another. We still can’t sort things out. There are many people in authority, but no one can give a coherent answer. Moscow is trying to take measures on its own – at intervals we send planeloads of illegal migrants back home – but that’s no real solution, as you will agree.

Question: You can’t jail or deport them all.

Yuri Luzhkov: It would cost as much as Moscow’s entire annual budget! The state needs to decide on it migration policy, set out some clear principles, specify penalties for private companies or state officials who facilitate illegal migration. We need to pass some federal legislation immediately, or…

Question: …or else Russia will flare up like Paris did in autumn?

Yuri Luzhkov: No, that can’t possibly happen in Moscow. After all, it wasn’t immigrants who rioted in France, not newcomers, but people born right there – even if they were the children of North African migrants. But let the French authorities worry about that; we have enough problems of our own.

Question: Wouldn’t you like to share them?

Yuri Luzhkov: With whom?

Question: St. Petersburg, for example. It seems they’d love to take some of Moscow’s capital city prerogatives – one branch of government, at least. So why not let St. Petersburg have the Constitutional Court, if the people there want it so much?

Yuri Luzhkov: The Constitution of the Russian Federation sets it out in black and white. The Constitutional Court is a state institution. If the Duma and the Federation Council vote in favor of the relocation plan, and if the president supports it – then yes, certainly. It would be no tragedy for Moscow. But I’d like to note that this isn’t just about 19 judges – the issue goes much further than might be apparent at first glance. I’ve already heard talk of relocating the Supreme Arbitration Court to St. Petersburg as well. And after that they might want the Supreme Court itself.

The only question is who benefits from all this. Who stands to gain by decentralizing state institutions? And I don’t think the people of St. Petersburg would be very glad of their new tenants. That city already has continual traffic jams, which would only be exacerbated by the arrival of senior state officials. Don’t forget that Moscow has ring roads, but Peter the Great didn’t take automotive vehicles into account when he founded St. Petersburg – there’s nothing to divert the flow of traffic there, no way of bypassing the traffic lights at every intersection. Everything should be considered thoroughly before such a move is made. Incidentally, I once suggested to President Putin that only two state officials should retain the right to have a flashing light on their cars: the president and the prime minister. All other lights and sirens should only be used by ambulances and other emergency vehicles. That’s it! No more of those fringe benefits for Duma members, oligarchs, or ministers. Perhaps progress on road-building would be quicker then, if finance and economy ministers could get stuck in traffic jams like ordinary mortals.

Question: That idea isn’t likely to get much support. Still, the most important thing is to prevent Anatoly Chubais from cutting off electricity again, or all other plans will disappear in the darkness.

Yuri Luzhkov: The blackout last May wasn’t an energy crisis, in my view, but it was a very serious incident – the first alarm signal. Or not the first, really. Something similar had happened at the Beskudnikovsky substation, but that didn’t lead to spreading power-cuts, the domino principle didn’t kick in, and the incident didn’t get much publicity. I’ve been observing events at the Mosenergo utility company for the past four years. The incompetent leadership of Mr. Yevstafiev, brought in by Chubais to replace Remezov the specialist, had unfortunate consequences. I’m not saying that I predicted this, but I had forebodings, and spoke to President Putin several times, trying to draw his attention to what was happening. Unless some measures are taken, a repeat of the May blackout cannot be ruled out.

Question: So do you think the crisis will grow?

Yuri Luzhkov: Certainly! In order to double GDP by 2010, as President Putin says we should, we need to expand the capacities of Russia’s electrical system by 50%. That isn’t happening. RAO Unified Energy Systems isn’t keeping up with growth rates in the real sector of the economy, and this gap is sure to grow. Electricity grids are ageing, equipment isn’t being replaced, maintenance leaves something to be desired. Do you see where the tragedy lies? Moscow’s economic resources have grown by over 20% this year, but Mosenergo, a support structure in this case, cannot meet the city’s electricity demands. Chubais says that Moscow’s rapid growth rate has come as a surprise. Is that meant to imply that Moscow should have asked permission from RAO Unified Energy Systems? That is, they’re trying to constrain us, restrict us, hold us back. Why? The impression is that this person is deliberately trying to create problems for Moscow.

Question: And where does Chubais himself live?

Yuri Luzhkov: It would be more appropriate to ask whom he serves.

Question: Do you know the answer to that?

Yuri Luzhkov: He isn’t serving Russia, at any rate. The privatization process designed by Chubais destroyed Russia’s economy. The actions of RAO Unified Energy Systems pose a serious threat to Russia’s national security.

Personally, I don’t care about Chubais – but the electricity sector is developing far too slowly. We’re continuing to observe the disintegration of Mosenergo. One large utility company is being replaced by 17 smaller companies. Who shall be held accountable if, God forbid, anything else goes wrong?

Question: The impression is that if Moscow grows any larger, it will become ungovernable.

Yuri Luzhkov: We’re coping, so far, and I don’t see any grounds for restricting growth. Moscow’s birth rate has exceeded its death rate over the past few years. That indicator can’t be other than a good thing. It means life is getting better; people have some confidence in what tomorrow will bring. We’re about to open yet another large maternity hospital. Go ahead, have children! True, another problem has emerged: we need 12,000 more places in the city’s kindergartens. There’s a shortage! We’re trying to find a solution, opening up pre-school institutions that were shut down in the 1990s due to the demographic situation. To be honest, this is a good kind of problem to have.

Question: And what are your views on the idea of merging the city of Moscow with the Moscow region? If the Perm region merged with its neighbor to form the Perm territory, and the Kamchatka territory is being planned, why not a Moscow territory as well?

Yuri Luzhkov: It might be too powerful a region – enough to unbalance the whole Russian Federation. On the other hand, there is some sense in that proposal. It would relieve many social problems for Moscow region residents. And the city of Moscow would also benefit in some ways. So we should consider it, analyze our options.

Question: In our interview a year ago, you said for the first time that you intend to step down as mayor in 2007. But much has changed over the past year.

Yuri Luzhkov: Such as?

Question: United Russia won the Moscow city legislature election and announced that it plans to nominate you for another term as mayor.

Yuri Luzhkov: It’s nice to be held in esteem, of course, but that was only a personal view expressed by Andrei Metelsky, leader of the United Russia faction in the city parliament. The decision isn’t up to him; it will be made by President Putin. To be honest, I’m not as worried about 2007 as I am about the year after. We’ll have to elect the president of Russia, and much depends on that person. That’s how our system of statehood has developed – three centuries under the Romanov dynasty, with the Riurik dynasty and other grand princes ruling Rus before that, and all this has been absorbed at the genetic level by our people…

Question: So are you in favor of restoring the monarchy?

Yuri Luzhkov: No, the point I’m trying to make is different: I’m saying that the head of state plays a huge role in Russia. That’s how it has always been, and still is. I considered Yeltsin’s actions harmful; I consider Putin’s actions beneficial. Putin has stated that he will not amend the Constitution, and the Constitution says that the president must step down after two consecutive terms. Who shall replace him? It’s not a matter of idle curiosity for me. And it’s not just about my own fate. Each and every thinking citizen who cares about the welfare of our Motherland must ask this question: who will be the head of state? It would have been good to persuade Putin to stay on, of course, but he’s made his decision. So we need to seek successor options, someone who can continue what has been started, without destroying it. The situation is extremely serious. As soon as the election campaign is announced, presidential candidates will crawl out of the woodwork from all directions – and we don’t have the right to make the wrong choice. There’s too much at stake. Looking at neighboring countries, we can see numerous examples of completely ineffective leadership. But they’re all painted in various colors – orange, rose… Such options won’t work in Russia!

Question: Are we color-blind?

Yuri Luzhkov: On the contrary, we’re all too good at distinguishing shades and half-tones. In Ukraine and Georgia, statehood hadn’t been properly established yet – it hadn’t boiled down completely, so all this multicolored foam came pouring out of the pan. But in Russia we are grounded in tradition, a thousand years of history – so new revolutions won’t work here; they won’t find any support.