Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's stony-faced chief of staff was named the new mayor of Moscow on Thursday, cementing the powerful Russian leader's control over the capital and its sizable chunk of the nation's wealth.
Sergei Sobyanin, an avid skier and hunter from the Siberian tundra who was reportedly nicknamed "robot" by political opponents, was approved by the city legislature in a near unanimous vote largely seen as a formality. Immediately afterward, he accepted a medal from Putin, and underlined his loyalty, saying that "even though I'm no longer a member of the Cabinet, I will remain a member of your team."
The new mayor is the temperamental opposite of his predecessor, the fiery and boisterous Yuri Luzhkov, who was fired by President Dmitry Medvedev last month after 18 years in office. Luzhkov has made clear he believes the true reason behind his ouster was the Kremlin's desire to have a more pliant mayor before next year's parliamentary elections and the 2012 vote for the presidency, which Putin is widely expected to reclaim.
Luzhkov ruled over a building boom that allowed his billionaire construction mogul wife a stranglehold on much of the city's money, giving the capital a modern facelift but destroying many of its precious landmarks.
Some analysts believe that Sobyanin's key mission will be to let tycoons close to Putin get a share of the newly freed-up riches of the capital. "His main task is to help the redistribution of assets and financial flows, taking them from people close to the former mayor," political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky said in an online commentary.
Speaking to city legislators before Thursday's vote, Sobyanin criticized the former city government for inefficiency and corruption, without naming Luzhkov, and promised to cut Moscow's notorious red tape, create better conditions for investors, improve Moscow's congested roads and give a boost to education and health care.
The white-haired 52-year-old was born and raised in oil-rich Western Siberia. He had risen through the ranks to become the governor of the Tyumen region before Putin named his Kremlin chief of staff in 2005.
His appointment surprised many, because most of the Putin's entourage consisted of fellow KGB veterans and his associates from St. Petersburg where he worked as deputy mayor in the 1990s.
Russian media reports cited people who have witnessed Sobyanin's ascent to the top echelons of power as describing him as very tough and energetic, but unemotional. The weekly New Times said that Sobyanin's political opponents in Siberia nicknamed him "robot." He avoids reporters and rarely shows up in public.
Born in a tundra village, Sobyanin was once quoted as saying that he learned how to ski before learning how to walk.
Putin, a tough-talking former KGB lieutenant colonel, is seen as continuing to call the country's shots and is more popular than his protege and presidential successor. While Medvedev has named some of Russia's regional governors, Sobyanin's appointment again demonstrates Putin's sway in filling the nation's top jobs.
Luzhkov, who opposed Putin's move to cancel direct election of governors, was the lone holdover from the turbulent 1990s when regional leaders held broad sway.
When Putin anointed Medvedev as his preferred successor in the 2008 presidential vote, Sobyanin was chosen to run his campaign. Putin then placed Sobyanin in the key position of the Cabinet chief of staff, with the title of deputy prime minister.
Members of Putin's United Russia party, which has 32 of the city legislature's 35 seats, praised him, and only two Communists voted against Sobyanin, who was appointed to the post by Medvedev.
Luzhkov on Thursday harshly criticized United Russia, where he held a senior position, for kowtowing to the Kremlin. "This is a servile party, and I quit it," he said in a lecture to university students Thursday, according to the Interfax news agency.