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Q&A: Sacked Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov

By Matthew Chance, CNN
The former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov - photographed on 27 September - told CNN that democracy was in danger in Russia.
The former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov - photographed on 27 September - told CNN that democracy was in danger in Russia.
  • Luzhkov: "They need someone who would follow [the] Kremlin's orders."
  • "We are losing democracy inside the country," Luzhkov

CNN's Senior International Correspondent in Moscow Matthew Chance interviewed the former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov on Wednesday.In a revealing and candid discussion, Luzhkov told CNN that "we are losing democracy inside the country," and refuted rumors that he was planning to leave the country.

Russia, Moscow (CNN) --
: Mr. Luzhkov, you were the mayor of Moscow for 18 years until last month when you were unceremoniously fired by the Russian president. Why do you think that you were dismissed?

Luzhkov: The answer to your question is very simple. Year 2011 is coming; the presidential elections of 2012 are approaching. The authorities need for Moscow to support the candidate who they will. They need a man from their circles as a mayor of Moscow. Mayor Luzhkov is unusual, self-sufficient, and independent. And they need someone who would follow [the] Kremlin's orders. That is why my career of a Moscow mayor ended.

Q: The Kremlin wanted their person in charge of Moscow as we approach these important elections. But you were someone the Kremlin turned to in the past. What changed, what made them decide you were no longer a mayor they could depend on and that you would become a threat to them?

Luzhkov: It would be more appropriate to ask President Dmitry Medvedev that question. The thing is that today there are only two figures that can realistically count on becoming a president of Russia - Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev was not confident enough to believe that if there ever was competition between him and Putin in the future, that the position of Moscow mayor and the Muscovites would be in his favor, not Putin's. That is why this decision was taken, the reason was found, but this is the real reason.

Q: Isn't the real reason that you publicly criticized president Dmitry Medvedev, that you broke the unwritten golden rule of Russian politics?

Luzhkov: First of all, the mayor of Moscow has always been an independent figure throughout the past 20 years, no matter who the president was. Moscow was independent in its positioning towards the processes going on in the country. And of course the authorities didn't like that independence. Moscow has been the only major city, the only Russian region which allowed itself to behave independently. The government dislikes not just the opposition but also those who dare to speak their opinion or question the decision of the authorities. Moscow has done that many a time in the past 18 years or so, and that has been an irritating factor. Right now, things will become more smooth for the authorities.

Q: Do you believe that is the reason? Isn't it true that the real reason that you were fired is because you overstepped that line?

Luzhkov: No, this is not so. The pretext for publicly spilling out this anger was the article in Moskovsky Komsomolets which was attributed to me. And also another article in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta which was devoted to the road project through the Khimki forest. I didn't write the first article but I agree with it. It spoke in favor of removing tensions in people's relationships in the higher echelons of power. As for the article about the Khimki forest, it was a request to me from the Presidential administration. They asked me to share my economic vision about what could be done in regards with the Khimki forest, and I've given my analysis of it. That article was published in the Rossiiskaya Gazeta. But I maintain that it wasn't those articles that were the cause of my dismissal. They were used just as a pretext which allowed them to launch the campaign of dirt, slander and libel against the mayor of Moscow.

Q: We'll come back to that in a minute, but first of all I want to ask you a side question. We rarely meet people, as journalists in Russia, who've been so close to the center of power, who have observed how Russia is governed, in the way that you have, working closely with Vladimir Putin, the current prime minister, and with president Dmitry Medvedev. So, who really calls the shots, who really runs Russia? Is it the Dmitry Medvedev, the president of the country, or is it still really Vladimir Putin who makes important decisions?

Luzhkov: You know, it's a difficult analysis for me, and I refrain from responding to that question. Because I haven't had many contacts with either Putin or Medvedev lately. And I don't know what kind of symbiosis is there in that double-headed eagle at the moment. For me, it's not so much of a concern who of them takes which decisions and how they coordinate them. I am concerned about a different thing which is perhaps more important for Russia and the rest of the world: we are losing democracy inside the country.

Q: I want to go on to the future of Russian democracy. But again I'm interested in your perspective on who is the senior partner in this tandem, who is the most important head on this double-headed eagle?

Luzhkov: You know, based on history, Putin is the senior partner. Being the President and having an opportunity to extend his Presidency which Russia would have supported, he finally decided to stick to the Constitution and endorsed the candidacy of Medvedev as the country's next President. So by that definition, he has to be the senior person. But time goes by, the situation is changing, Medvedev is active. So it's difficult for me to judge how the process of the decision-making is being shaped now.

Today unfortunately we have even less democracy than we had during Yeltsin's era
--Yuri Luzhkov

Q: It's interesting though because what some analysts are reading into your dismissal is that this was Medvedev emerging from the shadow of Vladimir Putin to wheel power for the first time really in his presidency to overrule what Putin may have wanted, and to fire one of the most influential important regional leaders in Russia? Is that how you see it, that your dismissal was essentially Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, asserting his authority over Vladimir Putin who you were looking to save your job?

Luzhkov: You know, it's quite possible. The thing is that Medvedev had, I would say, a syndrome of a person who didn't as much win the elections thanks to himself, but rather was accepted by the Russian people under Putin's recommendation. It is a difficult moral and psychological condition which the President, who wants to assert himself as an individuality, as a person who is able to carry out decisions, this condition has always depressed him. It is quite possible that this bad step, which had not been really accepted by the general public, was conducted by Medvedev in order to say, "Look, I'm the President, and these are the decisions that I take," and to show this as an example of how the President, capable of taking decisions, should really act.

But if you want to hear my opinion, I'll say that the people will believe in the solid President when things in the country start improving. But so far, unfortunately, we've seen a whole set of circumstances happening in the country on Medvedev's watch - calamities, terrorist acts, bad harvest and so on. These kinds of things don't contribute to the tangible results of his work as the President when he speaks to his people and says, "Look, I'm the real President." But when he fires or reshuffles officials, proposes projects on paper - those things are being taken quite skeptically. Any initiative is good, but it must lead to the actual results, which has not been happening so far.

Q: I get the impression that you don't like president Medvedev very much? Is there a personal animosity between you two?

Luzhkov: There is no animosity of any kind between the two of us. Maybe it emerged from the actions of his surrounding, on his side. I have treated absolutely equally presidents Medvedev and Putin. I try to judge people based on their deeds, on actual steps they make, not on their words. And in this regard, what I've said is not a sign of hatred or animosity towards Medvedev. I'm talking about the reality that has emerged in the country in the past couple of years as a result of Medvedev's presidency.

Q: Are you disappointed that Vladimir Putin didn't intervene on your behalf and save your job? Did you appeal to mister Putin to help?

Luzhkov: I was surprised. And I don't know Putin's position up till now. Some of Putin's statements indicate that he positively assess the deeds of the Moscow mayor. He said that the Luzhkov situation had two sides. First, the [positive] results of his work. And second, he [Luzhkov] couldn't get along well with Medvedev. I didn't quite understand that last point. I had been working, and in actual fact, have had no special relations, neither good nor bad, with either Putin or Medvedev.

Q: The way in which you were fired was quite extraordinary wasn't it? There was this campaign in the state media running news reports and documentaries raking over what are essentially old allegations about corruption, incompetence and mismanagement in the mayor's office. Why do you think the authorities felt it necessary to publicly discredit you in this way?

Luzhkov: I think that President Medvedev, when he was asked what that loss of confidence was all about, he referred to his own decree saying that it's self-explanatory. You can't take that for an answer. So President Medvedev didn't have any grounds, except political ones, to dismiss the Moscow mayor based on the loss of his confidence in him. And to somehow persuade the public - and the general public reacted sharply against Medvedev's decision, virtually all public and professional unions of Moscow, and not just Moscow, had written their official appeals to Medvedev demanding to protect the Moscow mayor and to prevent arbitrary rule against him.

All this forced the Kremlin to seek any sort of justification which would try to explain why the Mayor of Moscow, after the 18 years of the positive assessment of his work, after the President's own brilliant speech on the New Year's eve here at the Gostiny Dvor when he hailed the mayor - the mayor so suddenly has become a non-grata person for the authorities. An instruction was given to dig up all the shortcomings that the mayor had. And because this was a command that was very difficult to carry out, a lot of resources and money was thrown in an attempt to show the Muscovites and the Russians how bad the Moscow mayor was, what a bad mayor he has become - all of a sudden.

I can tell you this. I wrote a letter to the President - the letter that was not in support of myself, but which said that freedom of speech is being seriously challenged in our country, as well as other fundamental democratic principles, and that the dirty lies spread by the state TV channels didn't convince the Muscovites. We are talking about censorship. The only program on TV supportive of the mayor, which was supposed to be shown on channel 3 TV, on September 27, if I recall it right, was banned for air by the Kremlin. And then that production company which did the program was expelled from TV. After when censorship was established on television, which doesn't give an objective picture of what's going on in the country, let alone when covering certain individuals, the newspapers which were not censored, have become very cautious in their reporting. The Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, which was attacked by the Kremlin after that article, is now practicing self-censorship, weighing in whether the Kremlin would be happy about their reporting or not.

This is what I'm concerned about most of all. Up till now, we don't have censorship only in literature and arts. We have real censorship on television. In print, there is no official censorship, but there is self-censorship. You can't see any criticism of the authorities except perhaps one or two papers, and one or two radio stations. But the Internet of course remains a free medium.

I would really like to emphasize that thought -- it's not my own destiny that I'm very concerned about. Even compared to the Yeltsin era, we have actually become a different country in a lot of ways.

Q: Many of the allegations that have been made against you do have a lot of public support. For instance, the fact that your wife has, since you've become mayor, become one of Russia's most successful property developers, one of the richest women in the world. Do you honestly expect people to believe that during this period when you were mayor for nearly 20 years overseeing the city which is been reconstructed and transformed, you didn't in any way help your wife's career?

Luzhkov: Tell me, what kind of preferences could a mayor possibly give to his spouse? Let's say, the city commissioned orders. We have a market, a secondary market, where you can function as a business without having injections from the city budget, this has nothing to do with the city money and the mayor. Thank god, market relations still exist. I'll tell you about another thing. Do you happen to know what part does the company of my wife have in the city's budget? No, you don't know that. I will give you that figure, and it might even surprise you. Being a giant firm, it has received just two percent in the city-commissioned orders, after winning the tenders.

You know, I would like to deviate to a different subject for a moment. We live in Russia - this is a special, unusual country. [The early 20th century American author] Theodore Dreiser wrote three outstanding novels - The Genius, The Financier and The Titan. In one of them, Dreiser depicts a young man who started his business as a soap salesman working his way up to become a very big businessman, a multi-millionaire. Many generations of Americans have been studying this book for how to start you business from scratch.

My wife worked at an industrial factory, she comes from a very simple family. But she's a super-talented person. She graduated from a university with a degree in economics, and she started from scratch with a small business involved in computer programming. She then bought a small plastic production enterprise, and then later moved into the construction business. And she's been gradually developing her business for more than 20 years now, mostly not in Moscow. She has business facilities across the country and abroad. This is why I firmly assert that we are honest people. She's been doing her business honestly. As for me, if I had any sins - would I write the kind of letter that I wrote to the President?

And one more thing. When I was writing my appeal to the President - which was harsh and critical and which the President obviously didn't like - I spoke out about democracy, censorship - I sought the advice of my wife. She told me, "Go ahead with it, you're right." Now tell me - if she felt she had any sins, or there were any grounds linking her to corruption, or other illicit deals, would she ever tell me to go ahead? Never. I repeat, we are acting the way we are because we are honest people.

Q: Let's just get some perspective here. We are talking about your wife earning billions of dollars in property construction and other businesses during the period when you were mayor of Moscow, she made that money essentially in Moscow when you were the mayor of Moscow at the very least there is a conflict of interests there, isn't there?

Luzhkov: No, I am absolutely positive about that. She's doing business in regions like Rostov, Krasnodar as well as abroad. What kind of conflict of interests could there possibly be? No. I'm absolutely positive in saying that the mayor had not helped her in her business at all. You've got to hail a person's talent instead of suspecting him or her of wrongdoings.

You know, I'm slightly disappointed about our meeting. You are talking about things that have a sensationalist or scandalous taste to them. With CNN, I planned to discuss serious issues, about what's dangerous for our country as thus for the world.

Q: I want to move on now to your future. Are you concerned that if you continue to irritate the Kremlin, there will be more investigations against you and your wife and you could end up being prosecuted for corruption?

Luzhkov: No. They could be recruited in the same manner that the [Russian] media has been. But from the point of view of law - and the truth - I feel absolutely confident.

Q: Let's talk about the future for you. What do you plan to do now with your life? You've already taken on a role at the Moscow State University and I also understand you've started a political movement? Do you intend to stay in politics?

Luzhkov: Of course, the first question has already been resolved. I've been appointed the dean of the faculty for large cities management systems, and I'm grateful to the President of the university who was the first mayor of Moscow that he gave me that job.

As for the second part, I'm not abandoning politics. I'm currently holding consultations. A large number of people are contacting me - both a large number of various executives as well as citizens who are concerned about the situation in the country, our political system and the restrictions to our freedom and democracy, our ability to form various political structures. So we are holding consultations.

After that, I think, we'll decide on what configurations might work for us. The only thing that I can say right now about our public movement, which might perhaps develop some features of a party, is that at the first stage it will try to restore free elections of Russia's regional governors as well as mayors of Moscow and St.Petersburg. This would be the first obvious step to be done, and I'm confident that the overwhelming majority of the country's population will support this movement. Because right now, we can't elect anyone. Our political system is such that we can't elect any individual candidates to the State Duma, we can only elect people on political parties' tickets. This is very wrong.

Governors now are being appointed. The fact that regional parliaments elect them, is a formality. The real decision is being made by the President. I think this is not right. This measure was perhaps acceptable at the time when we had been going [through] a very difficult period after Beslan, when the power should have been consolidated and thus help President Putin fulfill tasks of fighting against terrorism. Right now, despite that there are still terrorists left, we need to return to democratic elections. This is in fact one of the things that a lot of people are worried about and get irritated at.

Q: Do you intend to stay in Russia? There are all sorts of rumors circulating... that you may flee to seek refuge in your properties in Austria. There's even a rumor that president Lukashenko in Belarus has offered you a senior government position in that country. Is that true?

Luzhkov: I have friendly relations with almost all leaders of the post-Soviet countries, and I think this is a very positive thing. As far as my own fate is concerned, I have no plans of leaving the country. If I'm talking about starting political work - this political work should be carried out here, in my country where I was born and where I have lived. I am a Muscovite and I don't intend to move anywhere else despite the fact that we as a family lead an open life and have property in London, but not the castle that the press was writing about; although we know whom it really belongs to, he's a Russian citizen who conceals that fact.

We have places where we can rest during the winter and where we can play golf. My children like London a lot. But we won't leave Russia despite what Zhirinovsky would like us to do. When I left for a week to spend my birthday, he was yelling like a madman saying that I fled and won't come back. I have to tell you once again that we have worked honestly, we are not afraid of anything. But the situation in our country should develop in the way of democratizing life. Today unfortunately we have even less democracy than we had during Yeltsin's era.