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Moscow's Boss Under Fire

MOSCOW: The upcoming elections to the Duma have clouded minds in Russia and around the world, leading people to forget that on December 19 Muscovites will not only choose their representatives to the federal parliament, but will also decide who rules the Russian capital. Sergei Kiriyenko, the former prime minister and currently a leader of the Soyuz pravykh sil (Union of Right Forces) is bidding to be Moscow's mayor. Until recently, his efforts were not taken very seriously. But the popularity of Mayor Yurii Luzhkov has plummeted and an upset could be in the making.

In early September Kiriyenko started his so-called new glasnost campaign against the Moscow mayor, asserting that the decrees under which the Russian capital operates have spawned an army of financial parasites who are feeding upon Muscovites. Spravki (official papers) are needed now for just about everything: if an out-of-town guest is coming for a visit or you simply want to remodel your apartment, you need the permission of city hall.

Horror stories circulating in Moscow describe how an old woman from Ryazan had to hide in the bathroom of her daughter’s apartment as officials from the mayor's fussy bureaucracy snooped about the place, their presence courtesy of information provided by a busy body neighbor. The hostess did not have time to run around Moscow in order to collect the required documents (five all together) needed in order for her mother to stay with her; she also didn't have $100 (or as some claim $300) to bribe officials. Such events evoke vivid reminiscences of the horrors of the 1930s when people informed on neighbors and friends to protect their own lives, with the only difference nowadays being that informers have a stake in the money bureaucrats rake in.

The propiska (a mandatory residence permit), one old communist way of keeping an eye on all citizens of the USSR, ceased to exist with the adoption of the new Russian constitution in 1993. This was seen as a great step towards freedom and democracy. Not by Mayor Luzhkov. Although Russian citizens no longer need a propiska, Moscow residents are required to get one on Luzhkov's demand. These policies, apparently, are not really aimed at curtailing people's freedoms, it's just that the mayor needs a reliable flow of money to clothe, feed and keep happy his large, dependent bureaucracy. New laws ensure the flow of new bribes.