Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Will the Kremlin Combine Moscow City and Oblast to Remove Luzhkov?

Paul Goble

Urbanna, October 27 – Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the head of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party and the frequent source of rumors about the intentions of the Kremlin, says that the Russian government may soon combine the city of Moscow with the surrounding Moscow oblast as a pretext for removing longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.
But while Zhirinovsky may be correct that the Presidential Administration is thinking in those terms, some Moscow analysts have warned that such an amalgamation could create a bureaucratic monster, possibly beyond the ability of any new administration to control and almost certainly over the longer term a threat – because of its size -- to the central government.
And at the very least, they suggest, the removal of Luzhkov on this pretext could set the stage for a struggle among officials and oligarchs for control over assets in the Moscow area, a struggle that could add to current political tensions in the Russian capital, yet another reason why some commentators are dismissing the outspoken Zhirinovsky’s claims.
On Sunday, Zhirinovsky said that he considers it “necessary to create a single federal center,” including both the city of Moscow and Moscow oblast, “to liquidate the borders” between them, and to put the combined entity under the control of “a minister of the central government” appointed by the president (svpressa.ru/politic/article/16023/).
Such a move would simultaneously represent a restarting of Vladimir Putin’s currently stalled effort to reduce the number of federation subjects by combining them into larger entitities and provide an occasion for the removal of Mayor Luzhkov, who is increasingly unpopular not only with Muscovites but also and more importantly with the central powers that be.
The “Svobodnaya pressa” portal asked several leading Moscow commentators for their reactions. Dmitry Oreshkin, a political scientist, responded negatively. “In our country, any stupidity can be realized,” but if people at the top are thinking at all, “combining Moscow with the oblast will not take place.”
“From purely political considerations,” he argued, “the federal powers that be need least of all a federation subject with a population of 17 million,” located in the center of the country, and having an economy which forms “no less than a quarter of the GDP” of the Russian Federation.
Such “a super-strong subject,” Oreshkin continued, “could put pressure on the remaining subjects” and on the central government as well. At the same time, such an entity could prove extremely difficult to manage given its diversity and would not address any of the existing problems even as it created new ones.
Earlier amalgamation efforts, the Moscow political analyst says, have not changed anything significantly. Instead, like the creation of the federal districts, such amalgamated entities are a kind of “fifth wheel” that interferes with existing administration by adding new offices with which officials have to deal.
Indeed, the history of the issue of combining the city and oblast of Moscow shows what is going on now. “When Luzhkov was strong, he struggled for the creation of a single subject in order to subordinate the oblast to himself and become prince of this 17 million strong ‘Holland’ … and thus more strongly increase the possibility of pressuring the Kremlin.”
But now, considering that Luzhkov’s position has weakened, Zhirinovsky wants to undercut him by combining the two federation subjects. “All this,” Oreshkin concludes, is simply “a political game” with little or no benefit either for the residents of the places to be combined or divided or for the country as a whole.
Stanislav Belkovsky, the president of the Moscow Institute of National Strategy, is equally skeptical about the idea and about Zhirinovsky’s claim of insider knowledge. He said that the idea of unifying the city and the oblast is only “one of the scenarios of the replacement of Luzhkov” and that in fact the Kremlin has not yet finally decided whether Luzhkov must go.
But a third expert contacted by Svobodnaya pressa, Vladimir Pribylovsky, the president of Moscow’s Panorama Information and Research Center, said that the unification of the two federation subjects was completely possible and that Zhirinovsky’s track record on such predictions has been remarkably good.

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