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27 Jun, 2007 02:21

Moscow's Mayor reappointed for fifth term

One of Russia's longest-serving leaders, Moscow's Mayor Yury Luzhkov, was reappointed for a fifth term in office on Wednesday. He has been at the centre of Moscow's political life for over a decade.

The name Yury Luzhkov is synonymous with Moscow. A populist and a friend of big business, he changed the city. Shopping malls, entertainment centres and luxury apartment buildings – all shooting up across the Russian capital, fueled by the country's vast oil wealth. It is a benefit for the rich but a problem for many of the city's poorer residents.

Luzhkov became Mayor of Moscow in 1992 when the whole country was in dire straits. After 15 years in office he changed the capital, turning it into one of the world's most expensive cities.

“In other parts especially here in downtown Moscow it's been a phenomenal transformation,” notes Fred Weir, correspondent from Christian Science Monitor.  Weir remembers what Moscow looked like during Soviet times and how it has changed since then. “Everything is available now. And in Soviet times I can remember lining up at that restaurant right over there sometime in 1987 being told repeatedly that there's no space. Now you can step in there and have a coffee or lunch. It's completely different,” noted Mr Weir.

During the last 15 years the Moscow mayor has managed to get business booming. “I would say that the best way to judge a governor is to see the economic achievement after a term in office. And once again I have to say that the construction volumes in Moscow are really the most important indicator of what  Mr Luzhkov is about,” says Natalya Orlova, Alfa Bank chief-economist.

The capital's construction boom is one of Luzhkov's major achievements, the biggest since Stalin's day. Whether it's the rebuilding of the famous Christ the Savior Cathedral, blown up in the 1930s, or ridding Moscow of the 1960s “Khruschev” style apartment blocks, Luzhkov has transformed the city from a drab Soviet eyesore into a glittering metropolis.

But many of his critics say that is not enough. “There are lots of problems in the city. Firstly there's no affordable housing for Muscovites. There's the problem of people who were cheated by the construction pyramids.  These and other issues have to be dealt with before any discussion about the future employment of the mayor is discussed,” stresses Aleksandr Lebedev, State Duma deputy.

No doubt Luzhkov has done a lot for the city's wellbeing. But many point out that his years in power brought wealth for his family too.

His wife Elena Baturina, listed by the Forbes magazine among the country's richest people, is the only female billionaire in Russia.

For most ordinary Muscovites, business and social issues don't go together.  Many residents complain that old Moscow apartments are being turned into offices – something Mayor Lushkov allows.

For Ekaterina Savina, a mother of three, life has become a nightmare since a firm moved into an apartment next door. For many young families Moscow has become an inconvenient place to raise children.

“It's not living, it's surviving. A mother with a pram can't get anywhere. I can't walk on the sidewalk with all the cars parked. If I go along the road on weekdays I risk being hit by a car,” Yekaterina Savina says.

Writer Eduard Bagirov wrote a book he called “Gasterbaiter” – a German word used in Russia for foreign labour. It's a book about his own life. He calls himself a self-made man but says not everyone can make it in Moscow. “It's easy to settle in Moscow, just buy a newspaper and see what work there is. But you have to be prepared to work 12 or even 14 hours a day. Not many people can take it. Moscow is a city that is working round the clock,” Eduard Bagirov says.

Muscovites see their mayor's good and bad points. They say the capital has lost its historic charm under his leadership.  But they hope the city's leader will make Moscow place that is good not just for businesses but for people too.

Until recently Yury Luzhkov had insisted he would step down. But now, after 14 years, it looks like the Mayor is looking to the future.