Moscow's boss extends 15-year rule as mayor

July 3, 2007 - 0:0

MOSCOW (AFP) -- Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov was handed a fifth term in power on Wednesday, extending a 15-year tenure in which the former Soviet factory boss has transformed the Russian capital into one of the most booming cities in Europe.

A recommendation from President Vladimir Putin that 70-year-old Luzhkov be given another four-year term sailed through the local city assembly, controlled by the pro-Putin United Russia party. Direct elections for Russia's regional leaders have been scrapped since 2005. Instead, candidates are nominated by Putin and local parliaments then rule on the candidacy. Supporters praise Luzhkov for transforming Moscow from the Soviet empire's decaying heart into a modern metropolis with fashionable cafes, designer buildings, fast-paced nightlife and booming investment. He has also gained popularity by giving additional payments to pensioners and teachers living in Moscow, where salaries as a whole are considerably higher than the Russian average. But not everyone likes the squat, pugnacious man, accused by critics of encouraging the ugly side of Russian capitalism and ruling Moscow like his own private fiefdom. The bureaucracy built up by Luzhkov "has seized the city like a squid and has given rise to a cult of personality, helping Luzhkov fight off any competition," said Boris Kagarlitsky, a political analyst in Moscow. A small group of opposition activists rallied on Wednesday outside the assembly building, saying Luzhkov had failed to preserve green spaces in Moscow or deal with the city's severe traffic problems. Despite cultivating the image of an ordinary man who is happiest wearing his flat cap and inspecting building sites, Luzhkov is very much part of the massively wealthy, Kremlin-backed elite running Russia. His wife, Yelena Baturina, is a billionaire and the country's richest woman. Her company Inteko -- which controls various concrete plants, hotels, plastics factories, food and drink facilities, even a stud farm -- has won numerous city contracts under Luzkhov's rule. Critics also accuse Luzhkov of allowing Moscow's boom to price out ordinary local inhabitants, turning the city centre into an enclave for the rich, as well as failing to reduce chaotic traffic. Architectural preservation campaigners are particularly opposed to Luzhkov, accusing him of wiping out some of the more picturesque parts of Moscow's historic centre to make way for lucrative office blocks. A former chemical factory boss, Luzhkov entered Moscow local government in 1987, rising rapidly through the city hierarchy. He was first appointed mayor by Russia's first post-Soviet president, Boris Yeltsin, in 1992. Luzhkov then won easy reelection to the post in 1996, 1999 and 2003, showing an ability for maneuvering successfully in very different political environments from his Moscow powerbase. In the 1990s, he was seen as a likely presidential candidate who could mount a national campaign, but since the rise of Putin in 1999 he has been painstakingly loyal to the Kremlin