The standoff between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and the Kremlin has been in the Russian media spotlight for weeks now, and the plot twists and turns are starting to resemble a soap opera.
Just when everyone thought the Luzhkov saga reached its climax last week, the embattled mayor suddenly retreated from the scene, letting his billionaire wife take center-stage with an impassioned plea in his defense.
Yelena Baturina, Russia's richest woman, who made her fortune as the head of a construction equipment manufacturer, has always stayed out of the public eye. Until now, that is. Her husband's dispute with the federal government and a media onslaught unleashed on him by all major national broadcasters have forced her to take a very public stand.
Baturina launched her counter-attack this past weekend, and, in an unexpected turn, she chose the political opposition magazine, The New Times, as her platform. In an outspoken editorial, perfectly in keeping with the periodical's acerbic tone, Baturina accused the Kremlin of orchestrating the media's smear campaign against her husband. Behind the take-down, she claimed, are people "who fear that in the 2012 presidential campaign, Luzhkov will back Prime Minister Vladimir Putin over President Dmitry Medvedev." Baturina echoed her husband's earlier attempt to "drive a wedge" in the Medvedev-Putin tandem. But her language was less vague and diplomatic than the mayor's.
Luzhkov did not give names when he attacked the Kremlin a week prior for what he saw as unfair criticisms of his performance as mayor. But officials close to the president felt the mayor stepped out of line, especially by contrasting Medvedev's allegedly heavy-handed approach with the light touch of a sympathetic Putin. Rumors have it that Moscow's long-serving mayor was threatened with dismissal. But he said he had no intention of resigning ahead of time. An anonymous Kremlin source then reminded him the president appoints and dismisses the mayor. At the end of last week, Luzhkov announced he was leaving for a vacation. And off he went to Austria, where he will be celebrating his birthday with his family later this week. Anonymous Kremlin sources and analysts say he has been given some time off to weigh his career options.
Baturina's harsh words, which came on day one of the Moscow mayor's vacation, suggest that Luzhkov remains defiant and will not give up without a fight. For the record, Moscow's First Lady made it clear that she has no intention of trading her business success for a life in politics. As for her husband, it looks like he is here to stay.
The twists and turns in a story like this are always hard to predict. But the Luzhkov saga seems likely to play out in one of two ways. Luzhkov could retire in the near future - maybe in a couple of weeks or months, but certainly before the end of this year. The incumbent mayor has made it clear he will stay put until his term is up in mid 2011. But as we know, nothing is set in stone in national politics.
Luzhkov's other option is to return to Moscow and go on with business as usual, loudly pronouncing his determination to stay in office from time to time.
Under Russian law, the mayor of Moscow can be dismissed by presidential decree. But that kind of dismissal has to be justified somehow, for example, if the mayor had abused his office.
Luzhkov has taken on several high-ranking federal officials in the past, notably Anatoly Chubais in the past and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin now. But despite his experience and stamina, it is hard to imagine the 74-year-old mayor besting the Kremlin Establishment. So it looks like early retirement for Luzhkov.
But then again, you never know when that unexpected twist will come in a story like this, all the more so as Luzhkov himself is an unpredictable character. Over the course of his eighteen years at the top of Moscow politics, he has become an almost mythological figure and has made us all believe he is the only man up to the job of managing the mega-conglomerate that is Moscow.
But this is just wishful thinking. It won't be hard to find competent and efficient leaders to take his place. The Kremlin has already made a shortlist of possible successors. But the Luzhkov soap opera is far from over. To be continued...
RIA Novosti political commentator Nikolai Troitsky
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.