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Moscow mayor was a pillar of Putin's Russia

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose 18-year rule transformed Moscow from a grey Soviet city into a glitzy, gritty showcase of Russia’s booming economy and its glaring problems, was fired on Tuesday by the Kremlin.

Known for his flat working man’s caps, his billionaire second wife and his blunt, often bellicose manner, Luzhkov was Russia’s most powerful regional leader, managing the $320 billion economy of its undisputed commercial and political capital.

He was also its longest-serving. Appointed by Boris Yeltsin months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the 74-year-old Luzhkov’s time in office spanned the presidencies of Vladimir Putin and Putin’s protégé, Dmitry Medvedev.

An increasingly public spat with Medvedev, who was 26 when Luzhkov took office in 1992, ended his rule as mayor.

A Kremlin spokeswoman said Medvedev had decided to fire Luzhkov “because he has lost the trust of the president.”

One of the last of a generation of heavyweights who ran Russia’s regions like fiefdoms under Yeltsin, his departure clears the way for today’s control-minded Kremlin to appoint a younger, more pliant leader in the city of 10.5 million.

But it also topples a pillar of Putin’s Russia. Wielding a powerful political machine, Luzhkov has kept a lid on discontent in the capital and delivered millions of votes to Putin’s dominant United Russia party in national elections.

Born in Moscow on Sept 21, 1936, Luzhkov joined the Soviet Communist Party in 1968 and worked in the chemical industry before rising through the ranks of the Moscow government to deputy mayor.

Appointed mayor by Yeltsin on June 6, 1992, Luzhkov is credited with finding compromise between Moscow’s powerful business clans to ensure relative stability in the capital during the chaos that followed the 1991 Soviet collapse.

Luzhkov was re-elected in 1996, 1999 and 2003 and was appointed for a four-year term in 2007 by Putin, who scrapped elections of governors and heads of Russia’s biggest cities as he tightened control over the country.

Luzhkov’s political power peaked in 1999, when he was widely seen as a contender to succeed Yeltsin as president. He joined a group of conservative politicians who stood in a parliamentary election against Putin’s camp.

But the Kremlin waged war in the media on the popular mayor and Luzhkov’s group stepped aside. Yeltsin stepped down and ceded power to Putin, who was elected president in March 2000.

After pledging loyalty to the Kremlin, Luzhkov proceeded to turn the capital into a dazzling, neon-lit looking glass of Putin’s Russia during nearly a decade of strong growth.

GLOOM AND BOOM

Riding a wave of petrodollars, Luzhkov oversaw a construction boom that helped turn the once-drab, sleepy city into a vibrant, 24-hour capital for Russian business.

But the building explosion has left Moscovites crawling through some of the world’s worst traffic and cursing a power grid that has suffered two big blackouts.

Moscow’s gleaming malls and grimy neighborhoods mirror Russia’s gap between rich and poor.

Preservationists say Luzhkov has encouraged demolitions and overhauls that have ruined historic buildings and erased much of Moscow’s culture.

Politically, Luzhkov was on the front line of a crackdown on Kremlin opponents, often denying activists permission to protest and sending police in force to disperse them when they tried.

A heavy-set, Soviet-style politician who donned his trademark flat cap to tour grandiose construction projects, Luzhkov was known for socially conservative rhetoric that pleased many in the mainstream but infuriated liberals.

He sent police to break up gay-pride marches, which he described as “Satanic,” and courted controversy by placing billboards with images of Stalin on the streets of Moscow for World War Two victory anniversary celebrations last May.

Control over coffers in the city, which accounts for one-fifth of the nation’s GDP according to accountancy firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, allowed him to keep pensions and public services among the highest in Russia.

But it has also fueled allegations of corruption.

Luzhkov’s wife, Yelena Baturina, is ranked as Russia’s richest woman due to her control of Inteko, one of Moscow’s biggest construction firms. Both strenuously deny she or the company have benefited from her relationship with the mayor.

Suggestions of corruption were a focus of mud-slinging programs that national television networks showed suddenly this month after Luzhkov targeted Medvedev with thinly veiled criticism in a newspaper article.

Medvedev took issue with the article and Kremlin officials, speaking anonymously, strongly hinted Luzhkov should resign.

Opinion polls indicate Luzhkov’s popularity has declined significantly in the past decade and fallen further in the wake of the TV attacks and Russia’s summer wildfires, which blanketed Moscow in acrid smoke while Luzhkov was on holiday abroad.

In September just 36 percent said Luzhkov was doing a good or very good job, down from 40 percent in July and 65 percent in 2001, according to the independent Levada center pollster.

Editing by Steve Gutterman

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