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Moscow: Under New Management

Moscow’s new chief, Sergei Sobyanin, has recently marked his first month in office. It is hard to call him “mayor” without using quotation marks, for the very idea of Europe’s largest city having a mayor imposed by federal appointment seems ludicrous in the 21st century. In a mock online mayoral election organized by the newspaper Kommersant and the website Gazeta.ru, Mr. Sobyanin placed seventh (with 2.8 percent), behind, among others, prominent lawyer Alexei Navalny, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and the “against all” option. The result is hardly surprising: Mr. Sobyanin, a former governor of the Tyumen region of Siberia, only became a resident of the capital in 2005 — as Vladimir Putin’s chief of staff at the Kremlin.

The mayor’s lack of understanding for his new fiefdom quickly became apparent. One of his initial acts was to call for the removal of kiosks, including minimarkets and fast-food chains, from Moscow’s metro stations. The result would have been an estimated 80,000 lost jobs and a 30 billion ruble ($960 million) annual shortfall in the city budget, not to mention millions of Muscovites deprived of convenient shopping locations. After a public outcry and lawsuits by small businesses, the mayor reversed his order — or, to be more precise, claimed never to have given it.

Mr. Sobyanin’s campaign against traffic jams (a real and urgent problem for Moscow) similarly descended into farce. The mayor proposed eliminating trolleybuses and pedestrian crossings, apparently forgetting that some people do use public transportation and occasionally walk on the streets. The mayor’s idea to prohibit trucks from the city center may seem appealing, but apparently he failed to consider that trucks supply hundreds of shops and restaurants in the capital. The replacement of one truck by several smaller transport vehicles would hardly solve the city’s traffic problems.

None of this is surprising, given that Mr. Putin’s 2004 law on the appointment of regional leaders replaced responsibility to voters by subservience to the Kremlin. On this score, Mr. Sobyanin’s record is impeccable. He has already proposed replacing hundreds of midranking city officials with appointees of Mr. Putin’s United Russia party and sent police to disperse a protest rally in front of city hall. Under the current system, Moscow’s ten million residents have no way of influencing the actions of the appointed chief executive. It seems certain, however, that when Muscovites regain the right to elect their mayor, Mr. Sobyanin will not be a leading contender for the job.

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