The 'self-impeachment' of Moscow's mayor

June 24, 1992

By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — On June 5 Gavriil Popov announced his resignation as mayor of Moscow. He was a little short of 12 months into a five-year term.

In statements to reporters, Popov indicated that he was quitting in order to concentrate on leading the Movement of Democratic Reforms (DDR). The latter is a political bloc of pro-capitalist factions which emerged from the Communist Party during the first half of 1991. At the DDR's founding congress in January 1992, Popov was elected its president.

To the pro-capitalist liberals who now hold power, Popov is one of the heroes of the fight for privatisation and market liberalisation. Under his administration, Moscow has accounted for roughly half of the apartments and enterprises privatised in Russia.

Large numbers of Moscow residents, however, have come to regard Popov in a very different light. Under his rule, democratic rights were attacked. Corruption ran rife among city officials, and Popov himself was involved in highly irregular real estate deals with shady western business interests. Urban services in Moscow decayed, and life in the capital became increasingly impoverished, dirty and dangerous.

The former head of an economics institute, Popov was among the leaders of the "democratic" forces which won control of the Moscow City Soviet in elections early in 1990. As president of the Moscow Soviet, he figured in a series of battles with the government of the USSR; at that time, he stood firmly on the principle of "all power to the soviets!"

Popov's attachment to representative democracy, however, proved fleeting. In June 1991 he was elected to the newly created post of mayor of Moscow. Like Yeltsin on the level of the Russian republic, he set about concentrating the maximum possible power in the executive apparatus. His goal was to implement a radical capitalist program by administrative fiat.

Within days of the August 1991 coup and counter-coup that destroyed the Communist Party, Yeltsin struck against the Moscow legislature. Under a presidential decree, the elected deputies of the Moscow City Soviet lost almost all their powers to determine the city budget and to appoint senior officials. The soviet was reduced to an ineffectual talk-shop.

Political cronies of Popov were appointed to the leading posts in the Moscow militia, the city's police force. None of these appointees had significant experience of law enforcement. The leadership changes contributed to demoralisation in the militia ranks, and helped bring about a steep rise in crime rates. From being among the safest of the world's large cities, Moscow has become a place where it is no longer uncommon to be mugged or to have your flat burgled.

Those with reason to be pleased at the sad state of crime prevention include large numbers of city officials. Always a

problem, bribe-taking reached new heights of frequency and brazenness under Popov's administration. The mayor himself showed an astonishingly complacent attitude to the phenomenon. Interviewed earlier this year by the newspaper Arguments and Facts, Popov said he had nothing against officials accepting "commissions" for services rendered, and complained that he himself never knew how much to give to express his "appreciation".

Already wealthy when he became mayor, Popov early in 1992 was listed among the five richest people in Russia. A number of the business schemes in which he has been involved during the past year have met with angry criticism.

The most notorious case has been that of the French-Russian property development firm "KNIT-Kaluga Gates". In apparent violation of Russian law, Popov and Vice-Mayor Yuri Luzhkov became co-owners of this enterprise; 40% of the shares were assigned to them as individuals. The city administration went on to grant the firm 60 hectares of land and buildings in one of Moscow's prime commercial sites, on a 99-year lease for the nominal rent of $10 per hectare per year.

If Popov is indeed to devote himself now to political work with the DDR, it is possible that the bloc will find him more of an embarrassment than an asset. The former mayor's business dealings have entered into folklore; large numbers of Russians can now recite chastushki — the cynical, often highly obscene comic verses that are the soul of Russian oral culture — about Popov's millions.

If being mayor was so lucrative, why did Popov choose resignation — or, as one Moscow journalist described it, self-impeachment?

More erudite than most sharp dealers, Popov probably understands that there are limits to the extent to which elected officials can afford to exploit privatisation for personal gain. Yeltsin's once-durable popularity rating collapsed during May, and the typical attitude of Russians to their liberal "saviours" is becoming one of passive detestation. If notorious profiteers remain in high places, this passivity will eventually come to an end.

Almost certainly, Popov is truthful when he says he intends to devote much of his energy to political work. Increasingly devoid of popular credibility, the "democrats" need Popov's skills as a backroom fixer if they are to overcome their numerous divisions and remain an important force.

Also, Popov heads one side in an important tactical debate within the liberal camp, and probably intends to spend much of his time trying to ensure that his views prevail. Where Yeltsin has been inclined to manoeuvre with elected legislatures, Popov's view is that these bodies should be abolished or rendered powerless.

"What is needed above all is strong executive power of the presidential variety", Popov declared in his resignation statement. "We have to overcome the last relic of the totalitarian regime — all-powerful soviets at all levels ..."

The "democratic" mayor, in short, has resigned in order to campaign for dictatorship.

Meanwhile, who is to rule Moscow? The legal position appears to be that the Presidium of the Russian Supreme Soviet must call new elections for mayor within three months. However, neither the city nor the national authorities have said anything about elections, and Yeltsin moved quickly to confirm Vice-Mayor Luzhkov as head of the Moscow administration.

Luzhkov then outlined a program in which he pledged that the course Popov had set would be continued.

You need Green Left, and we need you!

Green Left is funded by contributions from readers and supporters. Help us reach our funding target.

Make a One-off Donation or choose from one of our Monthly Donation options.

Become a supporter to get the digital edition for $5 per month or the print edition for $10 per month. One-time payment options are available.

You can also call 1800 634 206 to make a donation or to become a supporter. Thank you.