In September 2010, longtime Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov was removed from his post at the order of President Dmitry Medvedev, following weeks of scandalous accusations against him in the Russian media. His successor, Kremlin-appointed insider Sergei Sobyanin, took office one year ago today.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service correspondent Mumin Shakirov, Luzhkov describes what happened last summer, giving a rare inside look into the ways of Russian politics. He also speaks candidly about his assessment of the ruling United Russia party, of which he was a founding leader back in 1999.
RFE/RL: It is now one year since you were removed as mayor of Moscow. Can you tell us how it started?
Luzhkov: The whole system of piling on — as they figured it — started working. I returned too late, supposedly. Although the prime minister [Vladimir Putin] said I returned in a timely way, an unidentified source in the Kremlin said it was bad, that I returned late, abandoned the people of Moscow…
RFE/RL: You mean that Moscow was choking in the smoke of the forest fires last summer?
Luzhkov: Smoke and fires, yes. And it was as if it was Moscow’s fault! And then there were a whole bunch of other insinuations about me and about my wife. I understood that all this wasn’t happening by chance. What’s more, I know the background and that background also has its interesting beginnings, moments. I participated in a congress of trade unions, gave a speech. After me, Putin spoke to close the congress. The organizers arranged things so that I was not able to meet with Putin. And then I was invited to the presidential administration, to [see presidential chief of staff Sergei] Naryshkin. And Naryshkin essentially told me directly, “Yury Mikhailovich, the decision has been made. The decision has been agreed to by Putin, the president has made the decision to dismiss you.”
RFE/RL: Tell us what happened when you met with Naryshkin.
Luzhkov: In principle, after this series of provocations by the administration, by the president’s press secretary, I understood why I was summoned to the administration. And I asked Naryshkin what the reason was. But there was no reason: “It’s the president’s decision.” I said, “Tell me the reason. Did I not cope with the work of running the city? Did I not manage the social system? Is there a problem with the development of the city? Did I commit some crime that would disqualify me morally?”
“No, Yury Mikhailovich, you have to resign. If you resign voluntarily, everything will be fine. Everything will be OK. Everything will be quiet. There won’t be any more questions for you.”
I said, “I don’t understand the reasons. There is very little time until the end of my term.” There was less than a year left. “So I don’t see any basis for making such a hasty decision. When my term is up, I won’t seek another and everything will be settled naturally. Why is there suddenly such a hurry?”
“Well, you see, the pre-election work is beginning and so on. And this is important for us.”
“Well, fine. Fine,” I said. “And what if I don’t agree with this?”
“The decision has been made,” Naryshkin told me in a quiet voice, looking away from me. “I recommend, purely on a personal basis, not to resist.”
And I said, “You know, that isn’t my way. Not my way. I am a manager and I always have to understand the reasons and then, according to those reasons…” He didn’t explain anything to me, so I told Naryshkin that I would write a statement. But I asked him for time to celebrate my birthday. It was less than a week later — from the 17th to the 21st [of September 2010].
RFE/RL: It was a personal request?
Luzhkov: Of course. He said, “Yury Mikhailovich, I will talk with the leadership” — and the leadership, as always, made such decisions from afar — “I will talk with the leadership and most likely we will agree to your request — out of human decency.” So we agreed that I would think over this decision and after I returned from a short vacation to celebrate my birthday abroad, I would write my statement.
I warned [presidential chief of staff Sergei] Naryshkin that it wouldn’t be a resignation letter. It would be my statement about all that had happened during the period of piling-on in relation to me.
But I warned Naryshkin that it wouldn’t be a resignation letter. It would be my statement about all that had happened during the period of piling-on in relation to me. He asked me not to discuss this conversation with anyone. I promised and I kept that promise. He said that “on our part, we will make a pause.”
I should say that I had a strange birthday. All of it happened against the background of my knowledge that the decision had been made and that 20 years after first running the city as mayor or, before that, chairman of the executive committee, I must leave my post. For me, this was not a tragedy, and inwardly I was calm. Although, as anyone would say, it was a tense calm, calmness under conditions of tension. So I sat down and wrote my statement. Of course, I told my wife about this and asked her not to tell her friends. Then I told my children. In our family, we always consult with our children, and I think that is correct — the understanding of children about what is happening to their parents is no less important than the understanding of parents about what is happening to their children.
RFE/RL What was in the statement?
Luzhkov: I wrote my statement — in fact, I wrote it all out by hand and, strangely enough, practically without changing a word. It is on the Internet and has been published. I showed it to Lena, to my wife [Yelena Baturina]. It was forceful, my statement. It touched on several topics.
First, was that the first conflict that happened with Medvedev was public: On television I said that we should return to the election of governors and mayors, and Medvedev the next day said that anyone who doesn’t agree [with the current practice] should resign. I thought he was talking about me, so I wrote another statement — it was about a year earlier — and asked for a meeting. He agreed and I gave him my statement. He said he wouldn’t accept it and told me to throw it away. He said he had confidence in me and that his words were not aimed at me. To be honest, I was quite surprised.
Such declarations by the leaders of the sort that anyone who disagrees and expresses their opinion should resign remind me of the beginning of 1937. And in 1937, the nation was terrified right down to its genes.
But I wrote in my statement that, unfortunately, the situation in the country today is bad. We don’t have discussion. We don’t have consultations. Such declarations by the leaders of the sort that anyone who disagrees and expresses their opinion should resign remind me of the beginning of 1937. And in 1937, the nation was terrified right down to its genes. And that fear doesn’t go away. And it is unacceptable for the leadership of the country to intensify that fear with such declarations. That was the first part of my statement.
The second part was about his personal statements that sounded rather dictatorial, like: “My words are etched in granite.” Remember that? And so on.
The third part was about the lack of media freedom. I said that all our media today unfortunately are almost entirely subservient to the presidential administration and that is absolutely unacceptable in a country that proclaims the principles of democracy. Everything is done under orders, and I saw that in the campaign that unfolded against me.
And, fourth, I said the calls to remove Luzhkov were coming from the mouths of figures like [opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister Boris] Nemtsov — and it isn’t that I consider him a joke, I consider him totally weak, a political failure with a demagogic spirit. The president can proceed in one of two ways: Either he can go ahead on the leash of such Nemtsovs, or he can act like a man. In the end, I wrote it is up to you to make a decision, but I don’t intend to submit any letters of resignation.
A monument to Yury Luzhkov in Moscow, where he held unrivaled local power for two decades.
RFE/RL: In addition to being mayor of Moscow, you were a leader of the United Russia party, the party of Putin and Medvedev. But you were also a major political player back in the Yeltsin era and, back then, the leader of the very popular Fatherland party. How did you end up joining United Russia?
Luzhkov: I was always a white crow when I was in power. But they tolerated me until a certain time. In 1999, the attacks against me began because it was time for a change of the country’s leadership and they needed to create conditions for me in which I had no prospects for the future.
RFE/RL: Do you now regret that Fatherland merged with the pro-Kremlin Unity party to form United Russia?
Luzhkov: I regret it. Fatherland found itself in a situation where everyone was running to support Unity. We lost our material base. Every party requires not only leadership and public support money, resources so that it can continue working. But everyone abandoned Fatherland. Everyone who promised to support us abandoned us. And we were expected to get about 40 percent of the vote, at least.
RFE/RL: What is your opinion of United Russia now?
Luzhkov: As far as United Russia is concerned, here there are two things to say. The first is the people in United Russia, who are weak — I mean, the leaders of that party are weak and gray in terms of their potential — organizational, intellectual, and so on. And the party itself — maybe as a result of those personal qualities of those people — the party became a party of comfort….
The leadership of United Russia made decisions that were convenient for themselves. It is convenient to be a servant; that is always easier. It is easier than having your own point of view on the situation in the country. The ability to object also must be connected to potential, to strength, personal strength, the strength of a group of people. [Duma speaker Boris] Gryzlov, as the boss of the party — not the leader, but the boss — is a gray personality, a person who has always been a servant and who is incapable of having an independent position. Not only in terms of disputes with the higher leadership — such disputes simply don’t exist because he is weak — but even in disputes with his own colleagues. [Former Federation Council Chairman Sergei] Mironov — several times that Mironov disrespected him, maybe with the help of the higher leadership, so much that it was distressing for us, people in the leadership of the party.
All of this is sort of a two-pronged look. The first is a look at the people — and that is sort of a foundation — and the second is what they do — those people couldn’t, not having any leverage or their own positions, couldn’t do anything about the independence of the party.
Luzhkov: My view of United Russia is extremely negative. It is not a party. It is some sort of structure that does not have its own face, that holds a shameful position.