Former Moscow mayor Yuri Luzhkov: 'I fear for my family'
The Sunday Telegraph, 7th November 2010 08:21
By Andrew Osborn in Moscow
Yuri Luzhkov, the fired former mayor of Moscow, tells Andrew Osborn in his first interview why fears for his safety are prompting him to move his family to London.
For 18 years he ruled Moscow as its all-powerful mayor, presiding over its transformation from drab capital of the former Soviet Union to the glitzy and expensive oil-driven city it is today.
Yuri Luzhkov had friends inside the Kremlin and formed alliances with Russia's new rulers. He is also married to the country's richest woman - Elena Baturina, a construction magnate worth an estimated £1.8 billion.
But in September, after a months long battle of wills with President Dmitry Medvedev, Mr Luzkhov was ignominiously fired from his post.Now, in his first interview with a Western newspaper since he was sacked, he has told The Sunday Telegraph of his battle for political survival, his wife's struggle to hold on to her business empire - and their fears that their two daughters might be targeted or used to put pressure on them by the couple's enemies inside Russia.
So concerned are he and his wife that they have evacuated their children to London. "We have grounds, very serious grounds to worry about their safety," he said. "There is hatred out there. And if that hatred is all-consuming and the aim is to get at the family then the weakest link in the family is the children. We are afraid to leave them here in Russia."
They took the decision to get their children out of the country as Ms Baturina, 47, began a frantic battle to keep hold of her sprawling business empire in the face of growing pressure to sell it off to oligarchs close to the Kremlin, for a fraction of its real value.
Mr Luzhkov said he and his wife had decided to send their daughters, Elena, 18, and Olga, 16, to London "for four to six years", first to study English and then to enrol in an undisclosed university. He said they had already plucked the two girls out of Moscow State University and set them up in a house that the family rents in West London.
"It was a shock for the children that we took them out of their studies here," said Mr Luzhkov. "For me and my wife it was a very difficult decision to take."
Mr Luzhkov, 74, was mayor of Moscow for 18 years until the end of September when President Dmitry Medvedev fired him, citing a lack of confidence after a lengthy black propaganda campaign against the veteran mayor on state television.
His sacking was seen as the Kremlin removing the last vestige of independent regional power so that it could install its own loyal placeman, strengthening Russia's highly centralised system of government in the process.
A controversial figure who helped found Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, critics have often accused Mr Luzhkov and his wife of illegally enriching themselves by abusing his long-standing control over Moscow, Russia's wealthiest city. Ms Baturina, who started off her career as a humble factory worker, could never have forged such a successful construction empire without her husband's political patronage, it has been claimed.
However, the couple has always angrily denied such allegations, insisting that Ms Baturina is a bona fide self-made businesswoman and that Mr Luzhkov deserves credit for transforming Moscow from a drab Soviet city into a modern European metropolis. Critics say that transformation has come at too high a price. Hundreds of historic buildings have been demolished to be replaced with modern copies or worse, while its hours-long traffic jams have become the stuff of nightmares.
"Moscow has become a modern European city with both positive new things and complications," Mr Luzhkov, who is famous inside Russia for his love of bee-keeping and flat caps, conceded in the interview. But he said he regretted nothing and would not have done anything differently.
Mr Luzhkov was due to step down as mayor next year anyway but the Kremlin decided it wanted him to go early and quietly asked him to resign in the summer. The city was still reeling from a devastating heat wave and an outbreak of forest fires and Mr Luzhkov had been accused of woefully mishandling the crisis. Mr Luzhkov said he refused to step down. "They asked me to go quietly. I said my term is up next year and I will go quietly then but I do not agree to go now. You do not have any reasons to retire me."
President Medvedev fired Mr Luzhkov soon afterwards and Mr Luzhkov said businessmen close to the Kremlin then launched a campaign to take away his wife's multi-million pound construction empire, Inteko.
"They have already been to my wife's firm," he said. "A fairly powerful oligarchic and business nucleus has grown up around the authorities, for whom such a clean and effective business is a tasty delicacy." He declined to name names but The Sunday Telegraph understands he was referring to powerful businessmen with close connections to the Kremlin.
Business disputes in Russia are sometimes settled with blackmail, kidnapping and violence which is why wealthy business people are often highly protective of their children.
Sitting in a luxury golf club in Moscow, Mr Luzhkov, who looks a good 15 years younger than his age, said he felt "betrayed" by what had happened to him and his wife.
Dressed in a grey suit and sipping his favourite ginger-infused tea, he vowed that his wife would fight to hang on to her business empire and suggested he was likely to remain active in Russian politics despite his dramatic fall from grace. "We will not give up. My wife will battle for her business and for her honour and self-worth. That is for sure."
Though Mr Luzhkov said he envisaged his two daughters basing themselves in London for years to come, he insisted that he personally had no intention of fleeing Russia to set up home in the UK like others, such as billionaire Russian businessman Boris Berezovsky, before him.
"For those who consider me a politically dangerous figure it would be nice if we left and set ourselves up somewhere in Europe. We have the money. But nothing like that is going to happen.
"I am a Muscovite, I was born in Moscow, I am a patriot of my country and it will be difficult to get rid of me. Why should I leave? Especially since it could be a gift for those in power who hate me."
Claims that he and his wife had bought Witanhurst House in Highgate, the largest private residence in London, as a £50 million pound bolt hole were preposterous, he added.
"It has been claimed that we own something akin to Buckingham Palace and a newspaper has already apologised," he chuckled. "Why would we need anything like that?"
In Russia, the Luzhkovs are known as one of the country's wealthiest power couples, though they are rarely pictured living the high life and Mr Luzhkov has cultivated an image for himself as a down-to-earth man of the people.
He and his wife hoped to visit their children in London regularly, he added, saying they enjoyed playing golf in two clubs near the city where they were members.
Though Mr Luzhkov was until very recently a member of Russia's ruling party, he warned that his country was already "a collective authoritarian state" and that what little democracy existed was shrinking every day.
The media was largely censored, elections at almost every level had been rendered meaningless, and Russia's battered economy was kept afloat by oil and gas, he said.
Despite admitting that Mr Putin must have been informed about the decision to remove him from office, Mr Luzhkov appeared reluctant to criticise the Russian prime minister.
"Putin's attitude to me on an individual level was always positive," he recalled. "Putin understood the importance of my work, trusted me, and understood what Moscow meant. For Putin, stability in Moscow gave him the opportunity to take care of matters of state."
Perhaps not surprisingly, Mr Luzhkov seemed to have less respect for Mr Medvedev, the man who fired him. While recognising that Mr Medvedev's popularity ratings were climbing, Mr Luzhkov said that the Russian president's rhetoric about Western-style reform was detached from reality.
"He (Medvedev) wants at least to show the West that he is a modern person with a democratic way of thinking," he said. "But the situation is going in a different direction. It has not yet become a fully-formed hardcore regime. But the tendency is clear."
When asked who would be elected the next president in 2012, he retorted: "The president will be the person and only the person that they (the elite) agree to among themselves. What choice does the country have? None."