Date: Thu, 16 Oct 97 17:38:38 CDT
Problems in the Moscow princedom
By Boris Kagarlitsky, Green Left Weekly, Nr.293, 15 October 1997
MOSCOW - In December, Moscow will elect its city duma. In essence, these will be the first real elections for the representative power in the Russian capital since President Boris Yeltsin forcibly disbanded the Moscow City Soviet during his coup of September-October 1993.
The present city duma was founded in place of the soviet by a presidential decree in December the same year. Elections to it took place simultaneously with elections to the State Duma, but if there were certain grounds on which to claim legitimacy for the new parliament, the Moscow municipal elections were an open farce. Representatives of the opposition had no chance to participate, and there was no freedom to campaign.
Residents of the capital gauged the worth of the candidates, and in the great majority of districts voted to reject all of them. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov then retrospectively changed the electoral regulations, so that votes to reject all the candidates were not taken into account.
As a result, the capital acquired what was in effect a one-party duma, in which only representatives of Yegor Gaidar's party Russia's Choice were seated, along with a few independents.
The deputies used the two-year term allotted to them to the utmost. Soon after the elections the entire complement of the city legislature travelled to the USA at public expense to study the latest developments in capitalism. Within the duma, the main debates were on the text of the city hymn and other such important topics.
Throughout the whole of its existence, this august organ has only once adopted a municipal law independently, without the help of the city government. The mayor immediately put a stop to this show of independence, using his power of veto.
In 1995, sensing that they would not survive free elections, the deputies arbitrarily extended their term for another two years. The basis cited was again a Yeltsin decree, this one allowing extensions to the terms of representative organs if they had not managed to adopt local electoral laws.
Unfortunately for the leaders of the city duma, they had earlier succeeded in adopting such a law. As a result, they were drawn into a two-year court case against protesting citizens who viewed the Duma's decision as an infringement of their electoral rights.
The duma used every possible means to prolong the case, but in the summer of 1997 it ended with a judgment recognising the illegality of extending the duma's term. By that point, the time for the next elections was in any case drawing near.
Meanwhile the policies which Mayor Luzhkov had been pursuing for five years were bearing fruit. Through a curious blend of state capitalism and Soviet-style command methods, the mayor had succeeded in maintaining a high level of economic activity in the capital despite the deep depression in Russia as a whole.
Of course, there is a direct link between the "success" in Moscow and the economic catastrophe in the provinces, the same link that connects the relative prosperity of any capitalist "centre" with the immiseration of the "periphery".
About 80% of all financial flows in Russia pass through the capital. In Moscow are to be found the government ministries, the offices of major banks and other large national companies and the Russian uarters of transnational firms. In such circumstances, it would be hard not to record successes.
Huge sums from the financial exploitation of the provinces have been spent in Moscow on the construction of ostentatious buildings, as well as on sumptuous celebrations and various handouts to underprivileged Muscovites. Meanwhile, the infrastructure has become increasingly ramshackle, housing and municipal services have been waiting years for urgently needed investments, and the city's debt has risen. But jobs have been created, the standard of living has been far higher than the Russian average, and the popularity of the mayor has risen.
The mass media have created a veritable Luzhkov personality cult. Several newspapers publish his picture and "wise sayings" in each issue. His portrait is more and more often to be seen in municipal offices and on the streets, and Moscow television every day devotes a whole program of local news to his achievements.
The mayor wields power in the capital with an iron hand, urging on those who do his bidding and punishing those who incur his displeasure. He will send the police to force some private cafe to plant trees by its entrance, and will threaten to take buildings away from their owners unless the structures are repainted in a colour to his liking.
He threatens Ukraine that the city of Sevastopol in Crimea will be seized and turned into an administrative region of the Russian capital. Russian provincial governors, meanwhile, appeal to him for help. Luzhkov himself takes every chance to compare himself to Yury Dolgoruky, the Prince of Vladimir who established the Kremlin. (Dolgoruky acquired his surname, which means "long-armed", because he was constantly stretching out his arms to take other people's estates and wives).
The cult of the infallible city chief has also had an unexpected side effect; if Luzhkov has managed to claim the credit for everything good that happens in Moscow, his allies and partners get to answer for everything bad. The city duma has been especially unpopular. The 1997 elections are thus presenting the mayor with serious problems.
The leadership of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation is clearly trying to avoid conflict with the powerful mayor. It has particular cause to do this because the vice-mayor is Valery Shantsev, who was earlier the leader of the Communist group in the Moscow Soviet, and who today does not hide his links with the Communists.
However, a challenge to the existing order has been issued by the former chairperson of the Moscow Soviet, Nikolai Gonchar.
After the disbanding of the soviet, Gonchar was elected by a huge majority to represent the capital in the Council of the Federation (the Russian "senate"). When direct elections to the council were abolished in 1995, Gonchar was elected to the State Duma.
Now he has declared his readiness to renounce his duma mandate in order to wage a fight for the post of chairperson of the city legislature. Originally, Gonchar tried to put together a broad centre-left coalition on the basis of general democratic slogans. But by autumn, it was clear that most of Gonchar's more right-wing allies lacked the resolve to come out in open opposition to Luzhkov.
The "Our City" movement which Gonchar had founded lost most of its sponsors; this in turn helped to radicalise it. As the campaign has unfolded, its main core has come to consist of members of the Komsomol - the Communist Youth League - and of former Moscow activists of the Party of Labour, which collapsed in 1994.
The presence of the latter has prompted some observers to speak of a strange resurrection of the dead, occurring before the eyes of the public. The unwillingness of Moscow television to provide coverage to representatives of the opposition is inducing Gonchar and his supporters to take to "grassroots campaigning", and this is acting as a further spur to radicalisation.
It is already clear that Moscow politics will not remain a one-person show featuring only Yury Luzhkov.
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