MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday sacked a powerful political opponent, veteran Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who criticized the Kremlin and then defied mounting pressure to resign.
Luzhkov had ruled Russia’s capital since 1992 but angered Medvedev by criticizing his administration and suggesting the country needed a stronger and more decisive leader — a remark seen as favoring Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The clash with Luzhkov was widely seen as a test of the resolve of Medvedev, junior partner to Putin in Russia’s ruling tandem, ahead of a 2012 presidential election.
Medvedev, on a state visit to China, issued a decree stripping Luzhkov of his post “because he has lost the trust of the president of the Russian Federation,” Kremlin spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said.
Russia’s constitution allows the president to sack the Moscow mayor and regional governors at will and to appoint a successor without elections.
Only on Monday, Luzhkov, 74, had returned from a week’s holiday abroad vowing not to resign of his own free will — a challenge the Kremlin could not ignore.
But Medvedev’s choice of replacement appeared to suggest that Luzkhov had not lost out entirely.
The presidential decree named a long-time Luzhkov ally, First Deputy Mayor Vladimir Resin, as acting mayor of Moscow. Resin has held the first deputy’s job since 2001 and has responsibility for the city’s construction sector. A scandal broke out in October last year when the Russian business daily Vedomosti published photographs of outlandishly expensive watches on the wrists of the national elite.
At the time, Resin was pictured wearing the most expensive watch — recognized by experts as a Swiss-made DeWitt Academia Tourbillon Differentiel in rose gold, costing more than 1 million Swiss francs before tax.
Luzkhov’s tenure as mayor was tainted by repeated allegations that his billionaire construction boss wife, Yelena Baturina, benefited from his post — allegations that the pair strenuously deny.
Suggestions of corruption were a focus of mud-slinging programmes that state-run television networks showed suddenly this month after Luzhkov targeted Medvedev with thinly veiled criticism in a state newspaper article.
In the article in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta on Sept 6, Luzhkov criticized the effectiveness of Medvedev’s administration and said “the Russian government needs to recover its true authority and meaning.”
The mayor’s current term had been due to expire next June, but analysts said the Kremlin wanted to give a successor time to settle in and ensure a strong vote for the ruling United Russia party in parliamentary elections later in 2011.
Famous for his flat working man’s caps, his billionaire second wife and his blunt, often bellicose manner, Luzhkov was Russia’s most powerful regional leader.
Appointed by Boris Yeltsin months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 74-year-old Luzhkov’s time in office spanned the presidencies of Putin and his protege Medvedev.
Riding a wave of petrodollars, Luzhkov oversaw a construction boom that helped turn once-drab, grey Soviet central Moscow into a glamorous, vibrant, 24-hour capital for Russian business and society.
But the building explosion has left Moscovites crawling through some of the world’s worst traffic and cursing a power grid that has suffered two big blackouts.
Luzhkov was on the front line of a crackdown on Kremlin opponents, often denying activists permission to protest and sending police in force to disperse them when they tried.
He sent police to break up gay pride marches, which he described as “Satanic,” and courted controversy by placing billboards with images of Stalin on the streets of Moscow for World War Two victory anniversary celebrations last May.
Medvedev and Putin have said they will decide jointly who will run in a presidential election in March 2012, though most insiders believe the last word will be Putin’s.
(Reporting by Denis Dyomkin and Dmitry Solovyov, writing by Michael Stott and Conor Humphries, editing by Ralph Gowling)