I’ve been loathe to weigh in on the axing of Luzhkov. I’m neither privy to insider information nor prone to political forecasting, which leaves me with little more than opinion, and frankly, I’m not even sure I have that. However, I am struck by the eerie parallels between my mayor and Moscow’s, and even more so by their radically different though strangely synchronized exits. I thought I might even be able to avoid writing about that when Julia Ioffe published an FP article entitled “Moscow’s Mayor Daley.” I was ready to thank her for the favor until I actually read it and found, er, nothing at all about Daley in it, actually. (Though it does contain this passage: “This, after all, is Putin’s style: Wait for the scandal to be forgotten, and then make your move, thereby avoiding the appearance that you caved to pressure. Luzhkov will not be fired … Luzhkov will step down…”) Good times. Anyway, back to the Wonder Twins, our exiting Mayors.
He ruled his city for two decades as if he were the king of a nation state, wielding unchecked power, conducting business through patronage and strong-arming, exhibiting a curious display of megalomania and populism. Since the average adult begins experiencing memory loss in their 20’s, no one clearly remembers when this man was not in charge. He loved this town and loved running it. His goofy smile was contagious. He had a signature oldschool look that said to the people, I might be a gangster, but I am a working class gangster. He was controversially outspoken, but his crazy talk was a reliable source of entertainment. As many an epigraph on his reign have noted, you may not have liked how he did things, but you admit that he got things done. He revitalized his decaying cityscape so that anyone complaining about traffic of the cost of living or police corruption were forced to add a coda: but look how much the city has changed in the past 10 years … oooh, so new and shiny, such an exciting place to live, so much better! Sure, holding a street protest, or being in the mere vicinity of one, might earn you a few bruises and a night in the slammer, but let’s face it, most of us don’t attend protests. And yes, his political party is notorious for corruption, scare tactics and ballot tampering. But does anyone doubt that he’d win if free and fair elections were held tomorrow?
I mean, “if free and fair elections were held a year ago?”
Richie and Yura, despite everything they’ve ever done for you, awoke this year to find themselves not as popular as they once were. Or their critics louder. Not that they are the kind of guys to let the opinions of others decide their fates. And few were willing to bet serious money they could not politically survive the recent turn of events. But why now? It’s not as if no one had noticed the corruption, inefficiencies or shady allocation of funds before. Why the sudden complaining, aloud? Complaining as if complaining about these men had ever accomplished anything? Was it the belt tightening of the global recession, the confidence brought by new young reform-minded Presidents, the growing inconvenience of car ownership? Bad weather? Something else mayors don’t actually have control over? A perfect storm? Who knows from which direction the winds were blowing, but everyone seemed to hear it…
Now we take a break from the parallels.
This summer, Mayor Daley held a press conference to announce he would not be seeking re-election.
This summer, Mayor Luzhkov vacationed abroad while his city suffocated in smoke, refused to return, eventually returned, people protested, the Kremlin suggested he think about resigning, maybe come up with the name of a replacement, he ignored them, they sent him on vacation to think about resigning, maybe come up with severance deal, he returned defiant. He was fired.
I might boast that my mayor is more humble than yours. However, being unaccountable to anyone, no one can fire mine for insubordination, so far as I am aware.
And we return to our parallels.
Shock. Yes, there had been murmurs, wishful thinking, fantasies and hysterical pundits who’d said it might happen, it could happen, it even would happen. But no one thought he’d actually do it. He being either Daley or Medvedev. Even the most vocal critics believed their mayor would take his final breath in office. It reminds me of the title of the book,Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More. Neither man had been grooming a protege to succeed him in office. Neither man gave any potential successor much time to prepare for the new job. Unlike other modern day autocrats, they were not interested in transitioning out of office. The chapter covering their respective reign in the history books would end with a full stop.
While it’s popular to bemoan the joke that is the democratic process associated with Russia or Chicago, I hear few people complain that they’ve been robbed of the chance to vote their leader out of office. While a new era begins, and reform and “real politics” seem at least more possible now than it did a few months ago, I don’t see many people dancing in the streets. I hear lots of talk about legacies. About looming criminal investigations. About architecture and city planning. And, as if we’d regressed into ancients who’d just witnessed a comet, I hear people, bewildered, ask what it all means, and keep their fingers crossed that everything continues to work. Like those ancients, we will find new leaders, good or bad. The earth will keep turning. And we’ll find new things to complain about, new people to blame, new things to build, new rules and regulations to pass and new people to undermine them. We’ll find new humans to turn into icons before finding new reasons to expose them as merely mortal.
I suspect it will be some time, however, before we find a new Daley or Luzhkov.