Sunday, August 8, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Is Moscow's Luzhkov Having a Michael Bilandic Moment?

Paul Goble

Staunton, August 8 – In early 1979, Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic failed to respond rapidly to a massive blizzard which immobilized his city, and shortly thereafter the voters of that Midwestern American city voted him and, for a time at least, the Daley machine out of office in favor of Jane Byrne.
Last week, despite the smoke and smog that had covered his city boosting illnesses and death rates and leading several foreign embassies to evacuate, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov went on vacation, and his press secretary Sergey Tsoy told the media on Friday that there was no reason for the mayor to return.
Asked whether Luzhkov would come back, Tsoy responded “But what problems are there? Do we have an extraordinary or crisis situation in Moscow? Is this a problem of Moscow? Is this a crisis situation?” And he suggested not only that everything that could be done was being but also that “the source of the problems” was outside the city (,
Tsoy’s comments and Luzhkov’s absence, just like Bilandic’s failure to respond quickly to the snow in Chicago 31 years ago, has sparked anger from Muscovites who are suffering under perhaps the worst atmospheric conditions in history, led LDPR Vladimir Zhirinovsky to call for martial law there, and caused other Moscow officials to try to appear more responsive.
Yesterday, Zhirinovsky, whose sometimes outrageous statements capture what many in the population are thinking, declared that the Moscow city government had failed to cope with the situation and that extraordinary measures were necessary to promote “the normalization” of the situation (
City officials denounced the LDPR leader for his comments, with Vladimir Platonov, the chairman of the Moscow City Duma, suggesting that he was only making the situation. But even as the two exchanged barbs, some officials in the Russian capital were taking steps to move in the direction Zhirinovsky was indicating.
Petr Biryukov, the first deputy mayor of Moscow, called on industries to stop work and send their employees on leave, on parents to send their children out of the city, and on everyone to stop using their cars for anything but emergency trips. But Biryukov’s calls were only appeals, not orders, and it is unclear how much of an impact they will have.
City officials did order hospitals to operate today at normal weekday rates to handle problems, but doctors reported that the powers that be aren’t about to order an emergency situation because then they would have to pay medical personnel and others working in hospitals more (
That too is likely to outrage Muscovites but not nearly as much as another comment by the same doctor-blogger. He reports and this has now been picked up by other online portals (see that doctors have been prohibited from diagnosing anyone with heat stroke, whatever the facts of the case.
In the face of all this, Luzhkov’s press secretary Tsoy said today that Luzhkov had decided to break off his “treatment for a sports injury” and return to Moscow “in connection with the evolving situation in the city as a result of fires in the Moscow region,” a step that many Muscovites may see as too little, too late (
Obviously, Luzhkov does not face the same kind of electoral constraints that Chicago’s Bilandic did, but his behavior this past week may lead to his ouster just the same, with his Kremlin bosses deciding that they can boost their own ratings by getting rid of someone who has been so obviously insensitive to the sufferings of his constituents.
And consequently, just as a snowstorm did in Bilandic a generation ago and set the stage for a change in direction in Chicago politics, so now a firestorm in the Russian Federation may have a similar effect first with the Moscow mayor and then quite possibly with the political machine of which Luzhkov is a part.

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