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Russia’s Newest Democrat

Meet the latest addition to Russia’s growing chorus of Kremlin critics: Yuri M. Luzhkov, 74, until last week the powerful mayor of Moscow, co-chairman of Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party, and loyal supporter of the regime. After his dismissal by President Medvedev on September 28, Mr. Luzhkov underwent an astonishing transformation. He resigned from United Russia, calling it a “servant party”; accused the Kremlin of censoring the media, suppressing democracy, and subjugating the judiciary; demanded the return of direct gubernatorial elections abolished by Mr. Putin; and vowed to fight for a “democratic society” in Russia as the new leader of the Movement for Democratic Reforms, a defunct political organization inactive since 1993, but still officially on the federal register.

Mr. Luzhkov’s passionate interviews, statements, and open letters could easily make one forget that, until a few days ago, he was one of the pillars of the current regime. The mayor was not only a leading member of United Russia; he helped create that party and faithfully delivered votes for it in every election, including last October, when United Russia “won” 91 percent of seats in the Moscow legislature (all candidates of the opposition Solidarity movement had been barred from the ballot). Moscow courts were subjugated to city hall no less than federal courts were to the Kremlin. When Russia’s popular independent television channel, NTV, was being taken over by the government in 2001, Mayor Luzhkov justified the move. When gubernatorial elections (including mayoral elections in Moscow) were being abolished in 2004, Mr. Luzhkov was in favor. When opposition activists attempted to stage peaceful rallies on Triumfalnaya Square, the mayor “banned” them and sent his police to disperse and detain demonstrators.

After Mr. Luzhkov’s dismissal, some (though, it must be stressed, very few) regime critics chose to forget the mayor’s history and came to his defense. This reminds one of the anecdote about Nobel laureate Josef Brodsky who, after learning that his nemesis, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, came out against the kolkhozy (Communist collective farms), jokingly declared himself to be in favor of them. Most opposition leaders see the Luzhkov-Medvedev standoff for what it is — an internal squabble between two elements of the same system, with no side to cheer for. With his rule characterized by authoritarianism, corruption and the destruction of much of Moscow’s historic architecture, Mr. Luzhkov is as much a persona non grata for Russia’s opposition as he now is for the ruling regime. His sudden concern for democracy looks more like an attempt to present his likely corruption trial as political persecution.

For Russian analysts and Western Kremlin-watchers Yuri Luzhkov’s rapid fall from grace provides a glimpse into the future political demise of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, increasingly seen as a liability by other regime leaders and supported by only 27 percent of Russians in a potential presidential vote. There is no place for friendships or loyalties in an authoritarian system fighting for survival in the face of rising public opposition. The moment Mr. Putin is fired, his United Russia colleagues will publicly disavow him, just as they did with Mr. Luzhkov. Servile TV channels will shed light on corruption and abuse of power by his regime, just as they did with Mr. Luzhkov. The former premier may even give an interview promising to fight for democracy. But then, I fear, not even the handful of opposition supporters who bought Mr. Luzhkov’s post-dismissal rhetoric will come to his defense.

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