A political drama that has gripped Russia for weeks came to an abrupt end today when President Medvedev fired the mayor of Moscow, who was resisting scathing attacks to get him to resign.
The president dismissed Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow for most of the past two decades, for a "loss of confidence." The firing followed a bruising campaign by the state-run media that accused Luzhkov of giving preference to his beloved bees over his constituents and helping his wife become the only female billionaire in Russia.
"It is difficult to imagine a situation in which a governor and the president of Russia as the top official would continue working together, if the president loses confidence in the head of the region," Medvedev told reporters during a trip to Shanghai.
The Luzhkov drama has dominated the headlines in Russia since early September when he criticized Medvedev for suspending the controversial construction of a highway through a forest north of Moscow. An anonymous Kremlin source told the Russian media that Luzhkov, mayor since 1992, was trying to divide the ruling "tandem" of Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Days later, a series of programs appeared on state-run television bashing Luzhkov and stunning political analysts. Luzhkov was lambasted for taking too long to return to Moscow from an Austrian vacation while its citizens choked on smog during August's forest fires. An avid beekeeper, Luzhkov was accused of being more concerned about his bees' health than Muscovites.
Perhaps most damning, the programs alleged that Luzhkov helped his construction mogul wife, Yelena Baturina, become the richest woman in Russia with an estimated fortune of $2.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine.
Luzhkov vehemently denied the charges and his wife accused Medvedev of trying to shore up support for his candidacy in the 2012 elections.
"There are people in the presidential administration who fear that as the election gets closer, the mayor may not take the position of President Medvedev but of Premier Putin," Baturina told the New Times magazine.
Putin's ensuing silence fueled the intrigue since there was little doubt that Medvedev would need Putin's permission to carry out the firing. If, instead, Luzhkov managed to stay on, it would have been a crushing blow to Medvedev's presidency.
In days before today's firing, Luzhkov left Moscow, heading back to his chalet in Austria. A Kremlin source last week said, "he needs time to think." While away he celebrated his 74th birthday, receiving a congratulatory letter from Putin but nothing from Medvedev.
Thinking did not give Luzhkov the answer the Kremlin was hoping for. The chances of a peaceful resignation disintegrated when Luzhkov returned to Moscow on Monday and told the press he had no plans to step down.
Medvedev then acted. A decree from Medvedev was posted today on the Kremlin website expressing his loss of confidence and naming a deputy mayor as acting Moscow mayor. Luzhkov's political party, United Russia, silent until now, piled on, blaming the termination on Luzhkov's "own errors." The former mayor, a founding member of the party, promptly withdrew.
Putin's made his first comments about the fued today, siding with his protege Medvedev.