The mayor of Moscow and Russia's rescue Dark horse: As power struggle continues, Yuri Luzhkov jockeys to become compromise leader.

September 05, 1998

BY NOT defeating Viktor Chernomyrdin's nomination for prime minister for a second time, Russia's politicians yesterday showed President Boris N. Yeltsin a face-saving way out of the country's governmental crisis.

Hectic negotiations will take place this weekend to see if a political compromise can be reached between the president and leaders of the communist-led Duma.

Mr. Yeltsin must make a difficult choice: If he continues to insist on Mr. Chernomyrdin, he could throw Russia into a deeper political and economic crisis -- without having any guarantees he can succeed in winning confirmation for the unpopular former prime minister. The alternative is to cut his losses and switch to another candidate -- such as Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who is throwing a big bash tonight, complete with street carnivals and fireworks.

It may seem odd that Moscow is spending a bundle for an extravaganza celebrating its 851st anniversary at a time like this. But Mr. Luzhkov has always wanted to make the point that whatever the problems in the rest of Russia, his capital is different.

In six years, Mayor Luzhkov has transformed Moscow from a dirty and crumbling city into a cosmopolitan metropolis where new skyscrapers and luxury boutiques hide everyday misery. In a country of unpopular politicians, he is a folk hero. Moscovites, who re-elected him with 90 percent of the vote in 1996, are even ready to forget widespread corruption.

So why didn't President Yeltsin nominate Mayor Luzhkov as prime minister in the first place?

Simple. The Kremlin is not big enough for both men. One would have to become a figurehead -- probably Mr. Yeltsin.

A shadowy group of seven billionaires which has kept the president in power has nothing against Mr. Luzhkov. But the oligarchs think Mr. Chernomyrdin would be easier to control. Nevertheless, Boris Berezovsky, the behind-the-scenes financier closest to Mr. Yeltsin, acknowledges the Moscow mayor is one of the two most respected public figures in Russia. (He names retired Gen. Alexander Lebed as the other.)

Aside from having made Moscow a dynamic city, Mr. Luzhkov, 61, is popular for another reason: He is an autocrat in the mold of traditional Russian leaders, a "good czar." He projects the image of being close to the people and being concerned with their worries. At the same time, he maintains close contacts to various power elites -- from the moneyed oligarchs to the communists.

Mr. Luzhkov is a man to watch.

Pub Date: 9/05/98

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