Seeding the clouds over Moscow to insure against rain before the Russian capital's 850th anniversary celebration two years ago has come to symbolize Mayor Yury Luzhkov's desire - if not ability - to control every aspect of city life.
But Muscovites had a choice this September between official spectacles and a parallel festival: "Unofficial Moscow," the events of which were organized by Moskovskaya Alternativa (Moscow Alternative), a new social and political organization, the brainchild of ex-Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko.
"Our most important achievement is the fact that a public opposition now exists in a normal sense," says Vyacheslav Glazychev, a key Moskovskaya Alternativa organizer who coordinates its group of experts. "Ours is the expression of a point of view different from the official one."
Strange words, one would think, in a country that calls itself a democracy and has a multitude of political parties, even one for beer lovers.
A new opposition
Last June, Kiriyenko launched a rhetorical frontal assault on Luzhkov, accusing his administration of corruption and repression of city dwellers' rights. Kiriyenko, who said he might run for the mayor's seat, also announced Moskovskaya Alternativa's inception. The new organization, he said, would maintain a hotline for complaints about the way in which the city is run.
Luzhkov's erstwhile young opponent was President Boris Yeltsin's last reforming premier, under whose stewardship the country effectively devalued the ruble and de-faulted on its short-term domestic debt, precipitating Russia's financial meltdown in August 1998.
Kiriyenko has since formed his own party, Novaya Sila (New Force), and is one of three leaders of the liberal bloc Soyuz Pravykh Sil (The Union of Right-Wing Forces), which is jockeying for position ahead of parliamentary elections this December and presidential ones next year. Given Kiriyenko's political ambitions, Moskovskaya Alternativa isn't just any social organization in any city.
Luzhkov is widely billed as a front-runner in next June's presidential election. He has overseen the creation of a capitalist boom this decade in Moscow, and the mayor's office now has a hand in almost every large city business venture. The administration itself also directly and indirectly controls billions of dollars of real estate, industry and media.
Luzhkov has successfully combined free-market economics with a Soviet command-style administration that micromanages most aspects of city life. But his administration is widely acknowledged to be run in a closed, conspiratorial fashion, rife with corruption. His system is expected to become the country's if Luzhkov or a front candidate, such as former Premier Yevgeny Primakov, wins the presidency next year.
"I am sure that Luzhkov's system, if it goes beyond the Garden Ring, will be even more dangerous than Yeltsin's system," Kiriyenko said during a June news conference. "It is also authoritarian, but it has one dangerous element: Under Yeltsin, there was openness despite all the flaws of his system. But we will deceive ourselves if we think that freedom of speech and openness have been given to us forever."
"The goal was to create a social organization in Moscow that would exist outside the city's totalitarian-style power," says Denis Gubin, deputy director of media relations for the Internet Press Center, a Moskovskaya Alternativa project.
Moskovskaya Alternativa now unites a number of goals and allies under the banner of a Moscow opposition. It is part think tank, part legal-aid organization, part cultural-event organizer. In the broadest sense, it represents a new brand of Russian reformers bent on working on a local, practical and constructive level to try to fundamentally change what it sees as Mocow's "authoritarian, bureaucratic" administration.
The hotline itself is one of Moskovskaya Alternativa's chief channels for communication. "Using the information we gather, we appraise what's going on in Moscow for ourselves," Gubin says. "Official figures are notoriously unreliable. In that sense, the city is now reminiscent of the last years of socialism. We try to fight against that."
Besides maintaining its hotline, Moskovskaya Alternativa makes impressive use of the Internet. The group organizes weekly news conferences held in the Internet Press Center, a project spearheaded by Moscow art-gallery owner Marat Gelman.
Briefings on topics such as corruption in city outdoor markets, city housing and construction projects bring in experts and witnesses to discuss the subjects in Gelman's one-room gallery, which broadcasts transcripts live and fields questions on the Internet.
Moskovskaya Alternativa's core consists of a group of around 30 experts who are currently processing more than 2,000 e-mails and more than 6,000 hotline calls from Muscovites.
The main work of the group's coordinator, Glazychev, consists of drafting a report on Moscow. "Upsetting as it may sound, it will be the first public report since the beginning of the 1930s, at the very least," Glazychev says. "Moscow until now has only been discussed within narrow professional or administrative circles."
Experts taking part in the project include scholars and analysts, businessmen and city officials, many of whom chose to remain anonymous, even to Glazychev.
The report's overarching goal is to "work on a structural level," Glazychev says. "Our aim is not to find concrete thieving and corrupt officials. There are journalists researching that. Our goal is to talk about the city machine."
Drafts of the report, a work-in-progress, are posted on the Moskovskaya Alternativa website and are open to comments and suggestions to be used in the document.
The report is scheduled to be published in November, and will include discussion of Moscow's state of affairs, including housing, social welfare, economics and the city budget.
Glazychev makes a distinction between his work and those of other Moskovskaya Alternativa organizers. "I've always been involved in the city, pushing borders from the inside, working to change the system rather than criticizing it from the outside," says Glazychev, a wizened humanist whose academic background includes architecture, sociology and cultural studies.
"Global culture shows that while something is not written about, it does not exist," Glazychev says about the publication of the Moscow report. "It will change the situation for the current administration and for any future one."
Moskovskaya Alternativa is not only a forum for practical suggestions as to the running of the capital. The group is also a nexus for Russia's new dissidents led by Gelman.
Gelman was chiefly responsible for Unofficial Moscow, which brought together musicians, artists and others to stage exhibits and concerts that would, appropriately, give Muscovites an alternative to Luzhkov's official City Day pomp.
"It's right to compare us to Soviet dissidents," Gelman says. "It seemed that for nine years or so, power in Russia wasn't so all-consuming as it had been before. Dissidence wasn't deemed possible then. But, in Moscow especially, times of fear have returned."
Gelman, whom Kiriyenko has asked to help coordinate his political activities in Moscow, says he's not merging culture with politics because he wants to. "When I was asked, 'You're a cultural figure, why are you dealing with politics?' I said that as long as Luzhkov deals with culture and art, I'm going to deal with politics. When he stops distributing his personal tastes in the city's cultural policies, I'll stop dealing with politics."
Another of Moskovskaya Alternativa's projects is a self-described "movement" dealing with problems connected to the building of a "third ring" road circling Moscow's center, one of Luzhkov's pet projects.
Representing citizens' interests, a group of lawyers works with Moskovskaya Alternativa. The lawyers help file cases and write petitions and brought a suit on Sept. 5 filed by residents of a building on Kutuzovsky Prospekt who complained about illegal activities, such as noise level and the failure to compensate city dwellers disturbed by the construction.
"The noise goes on around the clock," Gubin says. "The health and the rest of people are economized. It's like a Soviet five-year plan."
Glazychev balks at questions about his organization's funding. "The maintenance of a computer server is kopeks," he says. "And the majority of experts take part in the work gratis. It takes much more intellect than money."
"We have a complex and unclear relationship with the Moscow administration," Gubin says. Initially, the Luzhkov machine avoided the existence of the group. Following Moskovskaya Alternativa news conferences, city officials such as Vice Mayor Valery Shantsev spoke on similar topics, denying the existence of problems in the city.
Gelman recounts that when Glazychev joined Moskovskaya Alternativa, the city administration immediately offered him the post of director of the architecture department of the Academy of Fine Arts. "They tried to buy him off," Gelman says. "And when that didn't work, they tried threats."
"But the Moscow administration tries to play the political card," Gubin says. "It refuses to accept Moskovskaya Alternativa as a social organization, not as a political one, and that it is for people who want to protect their rights and improve their lives."
Few if any observers give Kiriyenko a chance if he decides to run against Luzhkov for City Hall. "But the future of Moskovskaya Alternativa does not depend upon the elections," Glazychev says.
"I am certain it will become stronger as a social public institution," he says. "Its functions will be to carefully observe the actions of the city administration, whatever the name of the mayor. And in the presentation of alternative propositions, social policies, housing policies, budget policies, ecological policies - on all the key issues."
Moskovskaya Alternativa's effects are already being felt. One of those is the establishment of horizontal ties between the city's social groups. "Between the residents of North Butovo and those of Yasenevo, for example," Glazychev says. "The Soviet 'feudal' system of sectoral division in the city, which to a large extent survived, is beginning to break apart because those people oppressed by the administration are finding out about the common nature of their goals."