For many in Russia President Dmitri Medvedev’s dismissal of a powerful political rival simply underlines his firm grip on power. But the unsavoury way Medvedev snuffed out his opponent will alarm those who see Russia’s current president as a liberal counterpoint to Putin.
The dispute between Medvedev and Yuri Luzhkov, Moscow’s mayor for the past 18 years, once considered Russia’s second most powerful politician, was as brief as it was acrimonious. At the beginning of this month the mayor wrote an ill-advised article describing the mood in Russian society as “difficult”. The response from the Kremlin was unequivocal. The warning sign came at a political forum in the city of Yaroslavl later that week, when Medvedev suggested that “officials should either participate in building institutions or join the opposition.”
What followed was a smear campaign that would have made the Soviet Union’s agitprop department blush. There soon appeared a particularly unflattering television documentary entitled “The Cap Affair”, which accused Luzhkov of embezzling funds and securing lucrative property contracts for his wife, Yelena Baturina. State-owned news programmes also sniped at Luzhkov, criticising him for amassing a huge fortune through his wife’s property business, and even claiming the mayor had been busy rescuing his bees whilst intense forest fires raged around Moscow this summer.
As broadcasters filled the airwaves with slanderous tales of corruption and ineptitude, unnamed Kremlin sources embarked on a campaign of leaked briefings against the 74-year-old mayor. Even the opposition suggested that Medvedev would become a “laughingstock” if he failed to deal with Luzhkov’s “impudent behaviour”.