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Russia's dynamo 'candidate'

According to his aides, every time Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov ponders a decision, he asks: "What are the consequences?"

These four words quintessentially sum up the approach of the man many believe could be Russia's next president.

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The burly, bald dynamo in well-cut suits, who struts into rooms like a boxer entering a ring, has built a fortune and a state-within-a state in the capital, with an eye on the Kremlin.

Launching his Fatherland party last month, Mr. Luzhkov billed himself as the best man to lead Russia out of its economic meltdown. Love him or hate him, Muscovites can be heard uttering a mantra that awakens comparisons to the train-running abilities of Italian dictator Mussolini: "Luzhkov gets things done."

Though not officially a candidate, he is generally expected to run for president in 2000; sooner if President Boris Yeltsin should step down for health or other reasons or die in office.

Luzhkov trained as an engineer and worked in the Soviet chemical sector before cutting his political teeth during the perestroika years of Communist liberalization in the late 1980s. Detractors maintain he is an authoritarian mobster who runs this city of 10 million with a personally oiled political machine.

Luzhkov will deny this. But since he became mayor in 1992, the city government has gained a stake in nearly every major business in town from real estate developments to hotels, restaurants, a television station, and an oil refinery. He has fought off privatization of Moscow enterprises by the state.

Savvy administrator

To his credit, Luzhkov has displayed an acumen for administration impressive by any megalopolis standard. He took over a capital filthy with Soviet decay and brightened it into a place bustling with business.

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Broken street lamps were replaced, potholes were filled, crumbling classical faades were restored, and a new highway was built to relieve Moscow traffic. Billions of dollars of investment poured into the city, which controls 13 percent of Russia's gross domestic product and 80 percent of its financial resources.

Like the rest of the country, Moscow is suffering from the financial crisis. Rents and taxes are down, banks and businesses that filled city hall coffers are folding. But this seems to have made no dent in Luzhkov's popularity and he has enough funds to run his campaign. Public opinion polls show him ahead of many rivals.

Moscow resident Oleg Klodt says, "Luzhkov has shown us while running Moscow that he is a very good chief. It doesn't matter to me if he's in the mafia. I think he's better than the other candidates."

Urban legends abound of the lengths he will go to rejuvenate the city. One has it that he seeded clouds outside the capital so the heavens wouldn't open on his grandiose celebration of Moscow's 850th anniversary two years ago.

What is fact is the mayor's extravagant rebuilding of the Christ the Savior Cathedral blown up by Joseph Stalin in 1931. The job required millions of dollars, coming in part from businessmen seeking favors from City Hall.

Controversial policies

Critics describe Luzhkov as a control freak short on human kindness. International human rights groups are outraged over his revival of Soviet-style residency permits and the city police harassment of people with darker skin tones, such as ethnic Chechens and African refugees. Moscow's tens of thousands of homeless complain little has been done for them.

Staff, while praising the mayor's fondness for consultative teamwork, tiptoe around his brusque temper and refrain from smoking in his presence.

"He, well, barks," says one person who has worked closely with Luzhkov.

The mayor doesn't seem to care what people say and already conducts himself as though he were president, flying to Germany in December to make contacts with the new government and signing cooperation deals with foreign cities.

Luzhkov cultivates an image of physical vigor to highlight the contrast with President Yeltsin, sidelined with health problems for much of the past year. Every Wednesday at 7 a.m. the mayor can be seen playing soccer at Moscow's Luzhniki Park.

Luzhkov never misses an opportunity to make it known he gave up smoking and drinking 10 years ago, rare healthy moves for a Russian man, and that he often works late into the night and on holidays.

The mayor displayed his characteristic robustness at his party's founding congress last month. Those looking for clues to Fatherland's ideology need not look beyond its name. The platform has a pronounced nationalist-populist flavor, with such slogans as: "Food and warm homes for all," "Stronger leadership," and "Deeper ties with non-Western states."

First and foremost is a call for obedience to law. "We will restore authority in the country," Luzhkov declared at the congress Dec. 19. This desire for greater state control may awake memories of Soviet-era totalitarianism, but it is reassuring to many Russians during a turbulent time.

Other pronouncements do not bode well for free-market reforms. Blaming US advisers for Russia's economic collapse, Luzhkov denounced what he termed "vulgar monetarism" and said Russia should return to the state privatized enterprises that were sold off "illegally."

Presiding over Russia's economic powerhouse gives Luzhkov a strong base to prepare his campaign, but he must work hard to overcome outlying regions' traditional hatred of rich Moscow to win a national vote. Aware of this, Luzhkov has been busy networking in the hinterland, making deals with provincial leaders and pledging anything from schools to jobs.

For instance, Luzhkov contracted marble from Khakassia, 2,000 miles southeast of Moscow, to build the cathedral. In the process, he created quarry jobs and hobnobbed with powerful aluminum industry bosses there. The result? The wooing of votes from rival presidential contender Alexander Lebed, the local governor's brother.

In another case, he sent a trainload of impoverished Moscow children on a free holiday to a moribund resort village in the Caucasus mountains. Voil - more voters in the bag.

Many pundits believe that if elections were held today, Luzhkov's only real rival for the presidency would be Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Aides do not rule out an alliance between the two men, but are coy about plans.

Pressed on the matter, one staff member gave a Luzhkov-type reply: "He is considering the implications."

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