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The only thing more stupid in politics than a stalking horse is a stalking ass, as Sergei Kirienko is proving by his campaign against Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov.

Don’t get me wrong -I am very fond of the donkey family, in their place.

Aesop thought the same when he told the fable of the ass who had clothed himself in the skin of a lion. This he wore around the countryside, frightening all the animals, until he came on a fox.

“You would have scared me too, for certain,” the fox told the ass, “if I hadn’t already heard you bray.”

Not everyone in Russia has a memory like a fox. Take the correspondent of the Financial Times of London, for example. He wrote a few days ago that Kirienko “remains popular in Russia in spite of being prime minister at the time of last August’s devastating financial crash.”

Popular when? Popular still? Popular with whom? those are the questions to start with. And how popular, if it is at all possible to measure, when Kirienko’s electability rating is so small, the margin of polling error dwarfs it?

It is easy to overhear what the campaign managers in the Kremlin have been telling Kirienko. We’ll arrange the airtime — you concentrate on visibility for now, they have said. Keep painting Luzhkov black enough, and often enough on the evening television broadcasts, and before long the Kirienko image will have magically turned into the opposite of its target, but equal in size.

You can see what the dresser and producer have been whispering in Kirienko’s nicely trimmed ear. Sit down, so you don’t look as short as you are. Wear double-breasted suits, so you look bigger. Grin, so you look young. Stick to white shirts, they say — you should look so clean, Russians will want to try you out, like a new brand of cleanser.

Last October, I recommended that Sberbank give Kirienko the job of running the bank, which he was publicly begging for at the time. He had the pre-requisites for the job:

-He knows how to run a lottery. Not too many years ago, Kirienko and his friends invented and patented a scratch-card lottery game. Whether there were any other winners but the inventors of that game, isn’t known.

-He knows how to launder pension funds. Before he was promoted to Moscow from Nizhny Novgorod, the local bank which Kirienko headed after his lottery venture served as a depository for all sorts of regional funds supplied on the order of then Governor Boris Nemtsov, including pension obligations.

-He knows how to violate Russia’s Constitution and Civil Code. Kirienko still defends the decisions he took, as head of government, to precipitate the August 1998 financial crash, though parliament, prosecutors, and western lawyers know they were illegal. He has also never revealed fully and truthfully what happened in the days leading to the crash. He knows how to steal from the poor and give to the rich. This was the real function of the Russian commercial banking system from the start. In Nizhny Novgorod, Kirienko was one of the system’s pioneers; in Moscow, he didn’t exactly mastermind the last of the big ripoffs the verb is too grandiose — but as prime minister he deserves some of the credit.

Running a national savings bank is one thing; running Moscow another. The city is more important, as those who live in it recognize by keeping more of their savings in their apartments than in the banking system.

If Kirienko becomes mayor, and experience is his guide, you can be sure he will build a bankers’ pyramid out of mortgage finance and schemes drafted at Harvard. In the name of the International Monetary Fund, he will redistribute the ownership and cashflow of the city’s petrol stations to his supporters. He will promise to convert the municipal water supply into a river of cash, according to the plan of the World Bank. And when all of this totters, and Kirienko’s gang starts toward the exits, when the city faces a similar default to the one Kirienko arranged for the country, he will destroy the value of the remaining capital of the citizens in the name of “communal reform”.

Can the sight of Kirienko roaring like a lion convince Muscovites he is not braying as he did before? Impossible

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