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The Firing of Moscow’s Mayor Could Actually Make Russia More Democratic

Tired of the famous Churchillian formula about how hard it is to understand what goes on in the Kremlin (it’s a riddle, a mystery, an enigma, etc.), the American diplomat Chip Bohlen reportedly once joked, “No, it’s not—it’s a secret.” A crucial distinction, confirmed by President Medvedev’s dramatic firing of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov on Tuesday. It would be nice, of course, to know whether the decision really put Medvedev at odds with his predecessor and patron,

When Putin said in August that those who demonstrate without a permit deserve a good beating, he was explicitly backing Luzhkov. Now that presidential authority over Moscow’s leadership has been re-asserted, however, someone new is responsible for the escalating confrontation between the authorities and the opposition. For better or worse, it’s Dmitri Medvedev.

One opposition leader, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, who has been repeatedly roughed up by Moscow cops, immediately praised Medvedev’s decision and said it gives him a chance to become a “real president.” He got a quick little validation of his hope—yesterday, a small rally was held by a group of Nemtsov’s allies near the Kremlin, without police interference.People like Putin who say that Russians don’t understand or support democratic ideas may have a point about the country as a whole, but Moscow is different. With a better educated, more middle-class and Westernized population, it is an untapped resource for any politician—like Medvedev—who has democratic aspirations but can’t figure out how to empower democratic politicians.

There is a much larger possibility opened up by the demise of Luzhkov—the revival of real politics in Moscow. His long, autocratic tenure as mayor obscured the fact that Russia’s capital city is the place where democratic norms and institutions might have the best chance of taking hold. It’s where Boris Yeltsin won 89 percent of the vote in the Soviet Union’s first free elections. It’s where liberal parties continued to be active even during the Luzhkov era.

We don’t know whether and how the president of Russia intends to tap this resource. (That’s Chip Bohlen’s secret.) But it’s obvious that this is a moment of unique opportunity to change the political balance of power. Moscow is in play again. What better place to begin rolling back Putin’s decision that regional governors—and the mayors of the two largest cities—should be appointed by the president rather than elected by the people? (Popular elections were in fact what yesterday’s demonstrators were calling for.) And—more important—what about re-registering reformist political parties that could make Moscow a laboratory of self-government?

People around Medvedev, who have been frustrated by the difficulty of mobilizing the support that they believe exists for him, may lose one of the best chances for a democratic breakthrough in Russia if they don’t use the opening that is now before them.

Moscow is, of course, not only the capital of the Russian middle class, but of the Russian super-rich—home to 49 billionaires (almost as many, according to Forbes magazine, as New York City).

The city’s enormous wealth—one-quarter of Russia’s entire GDP—made the Luzhkov era possible. No one understood better than the mayor of Moscow that when Putin told Russia’s leading businessmen to stay out of politics, he didn’t mean that politicians had to stay out of business. From this insight Luzhkov and his team grew almost as rich as those whose fortunes they were in a position to help or hamper. Medvedev has made ending such corruption one of his top goals.

But merely changing the mayor will not produce this result. By itself, it may even increase corruption. Those who feel their livelihood is threatened are right now figuring out how to preserve it.

(Document-shredders are doubtless working overtime all over town.)

Those who see a chance to grab new turf, new perks, new power, will strike when they see the opportunity. Anyone who was put out of business by Mayor Luzhkov (or his billionaire wife) will want to even the score. But such people will also wonder whether in order to succeed they have to offer someone in Medvedev’s entourage even bigger bribes than were demanded in the past.

They will want to know whether—and how much—they are going to have to contribute to the 2012 presidential campaign (and whether the money will go to candidate Medvedev or candidate Putin).

Firing Yuri Luzhkov will advance Dmitri Medvedev’s agenda only if he can use it to change the rules of the game, not just the names of the players. Many people who benefit from the current rules will do everything they can—and in Russian politics, that means everything imaginable—to keep themselves from being sidelined. 

But many others will support new rules if someone can lead the way. Medvedev may now have a chance to be that someone. He has set himself the hardest imaginable test, while opening up new possibilities to succeed. If he can accomplish even half of what now seems within reach, he’ll have done much to make Russia a steadily more normal country. He’ll actually deserve to be president. For the rest of us, he’ll have made the Kremlin’s secrets less important.

Stephen Sestanovich is Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Diplomacy at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union from 1997 to 2001.

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