Andrew Osborn








Russian Revelation: Goodbye to Moscow's Mayor

E!Sharp, 1st November 2010 12:52

Russian Revelation

A view on the EU’s eastern neighbour by Andrew Osborn

Living in Russia sometimes feels like being stuck in a time warp. Change is glacial. So when something really changes, you sit up and take notice.

And when Russian President Dmitry Medvedev fired the veteran mayor of Moscow at the end of September, I felt slightly shaken – in a good way – if not stirred. It was that rare thing: real change. Yuri Luzhkov, who had been the mayor of Moscow since 1992, was, in truth, a hard man to like. An avid bee-keeping Russian nationalist, he was Homo Sovieticus personified. He hated homosexuals and he said so, he hated anti-Kremlin protests and he crushed them mercilessly, and he hated Moscow’s beautiful old architectural heritage, which he systematically destroyed. He also struggled to sound even remotely eloquent.

Yet for years he ruled Russia’s richest city and controlled a budget of more than a trillion roubles. He and his wife Elena Baturina, a construction magnate and Russia’s richest woman (who started her career making plastic buckets), grew fabulously rich on his watch. I do not want to make any specific allegations – they have all been made already – but when he was mayor, Moscow felt a bit like Batman’s Gotham City.

His success sent a depressing signal: Russia is not a meritocracy and sometimes, in fact frequently, the bad guys really win. When he was gone, the Russian capital genuinely seemed to breathe a little easier. In fact, Russia as a whole felt like a slightly, and I mean slightly, more enlightened place. It would be easy to dismiss his fall from grace as a local inside baseball game. But it isn’t. The job is actually a national and very important post. I grow genuinely tired of criticising President Medvedev for being all talk and no action but this is a case where he genuinely acted decisively and made a difference. Medvedev’s motives may have been far from altruistic. But the end result stands for itself and is a good one.

I recently found myself interviewing glamorous former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev. It is true that she is more often remembered for her blonde braids and good looks than her political acumen but she is someone who it would be foolish to write off.

She is worth listening to. The heroine of the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution, she certainly made her fair share of mistakes. Perhaps the biggest was teaming up with Viktor Yushchenko, Ukraine’s president until February when Kremlin-friendly Viktor Yanukovych came to power.

Ukraine is not going to join the EU anytime soon. We all know that. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t count. It really does. Its pipelines carry Siberian gas to Europe, its Black Sea port of Sevastopol hosts Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and its wheat fields are traditionally the breadbasket of Europe. But, as Tymoshenko argued forcefully, Ukraine risks going backwards not forwards. Yanukovych, a former mechanic, is an earnest Soviet-style politician who has shown a willingness to cut deals with Russia and a worrying tendency to embrace authoritarianism. Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is now guaranteed a berth in Sevastopol until 2042 thanks to his backroom deals and practically everything of strategic significance that Ukraine possesses seems to be up for grabs.

The EU may not wish to admit Ukraine to its ranks in the near future but it has a duty of care. Ukraine, a country of 45 million people, is in Europe. If the EU really sees itself as a serious foreign policy player, it should dare to be more robust in its dealings with Kiev or risk looking impotent. If it cannot deal credibly with small problems in its own back-yard, what chance does it have of projecting its power convincingly further afield?

Speaking of time warps, there is one man who it has been difficult not to mention on an almost daily basis since I first moved here in 2004: Vladimir Putin, currently Russian prime minister. Every journalist in Moscow has long been engaged in a frankly tedious game: will he or won’t he run and therefore win the Russian presidency in 2012. Or will Dmitry Medvedev, the incumbent, run again? The truth is we do not know. But let’s put it this way: Putin does not look like he is about to retire anytime soon. The man has crammed in more Soviet-style photo opportunities this summer than is seemly or perhaps healthy. Putin the whale-lover, Putin the Hells Angel biker, and of course Putin the man who drives across Russia’s barren far east in a Lada. Make no mistake. His macho posturing is not aimed at the West. It is for Russia’s long-suffering masses who don’t appreciate a surprise and need everything clearly signposted well in advance.