New Moscow mayor confirms Putin firmly in charge
Decision at last. For weeks, Russia has been gripped by the mayor of Moscow battle. The Kremlin’s choice has finally settled on Sergei Sobyanin, a close aide of premier Vladimir Putin. That says a lot about where real power in Russia lies.
The battle between Dmitry Medvedev and outgoing mayor Yuri Luzhkov was always about more than the government of Moscow. By sacking the intransigent mayor, who had criticised him in public, the Russian president showed that there were limits to how far he could be pushed. The fact that Putin was unusually silent on the matter added to the impression that Medvedev was at last beginning to take charge.
But the limits on Medvedev’s power are now obvious. The president can fire, but he apparently can’t hire. Sobyanin’s close links with the Russian premier stretch back a decade, including a stint as head of Putin’s presidential staff. Such a conservative choice belies the notion that Luzhkov’s departure heralds major political changes.
True, any change is probably for the better after Luzhkov’s 18-year rule. But the problems of corruption and nepotism that contributed to Luzhkov’s downfall are endemic to Russia, and not confined to Moscow. At least Medvedev has given some indication that he wants to change the system. Although no revolutionary, Putin’s younger protege has shown a greater interest in pushing reforms. His major initiatives, such as plans for a “Russian Silicon Valley”, have even stirred some investor interest.
But it will be difficult for Medvedev to push his reform plans as long as he so clearly plays second fiddle. The risk is that if Putin continues to control key appointments, preventing infusion of new blood into the political elite, Russia will stagnate. Some Russian analysts warn of a return to the complacent gerontocracy of the 1970s Brezhnev era.
The real test of that will come in 2012, the date of the next presidential election. There is widespread speculation that Putin will run again, shunting Medvedev aside. His determination to control the Moscow mayor appointment can only fuel such rumours. What’s clear for now is that Putin alone has the power to decide.