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Is A Kaliningrad Redux Brewing In Siberia?

Panoramic view of Khanty-Mansiysk

Panoramic view of Khanty-Mansiysk

When President Dmitry Medvedev nominated Natalya Komarova to replace the popular incumbent Aleksandr Filipenko as governor of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District on Monday, local media didn't report the news for days. According to media reports, they didn't want to upset the population.

Filipenko, who has run the energy-rich Siberian region since 1991, is very popular and Medvedev's move came as something of a shock.

But, of course, word spread anyway. Despite the brief television blackout, local blogs and forums stoked opposition to the move. And by Wednesday, nearly 100 people gathered in the city of Khanty-Mansisk's main square to gather signatures to send to the regional Duma appealing for Filipenko to be kept in office.

"The region has evolved from a harsh place where resources are extracted, into a beautiful and pleasant place to live, work, and raise a family. He has instilled in people a love of sports and culture," read aletter accompanying the signatures.

Filipenko urged the protesters to disperse, which they did, but more demonstrations are scheduled for today. For his part, Filipenko has traveled to Moscow for consultations with Kremlin officials.

Meanwhile, Sergei Kozlov, editor in chief of the local newspaper "Novosti Ugri" published an open letter to Medvedev protesting Filipenko's replacement.

In an interview with, Kozlov said he agonized over going public with his opposition:

I spent two days thinking about all this after learning of the president's decision of the president. I believe that Filipenko was brought stability and this is a credit to his work as governor. He enjoys great popular support. I think Medvedev has made this decision based on the opinions of third-parties and doesn't know how people [in the region] relate to Filipenko. Officials in the Kremlin may not like him. Party leaders [from United Russia] may not like him. But a huge mass of people trust him. I have no reason to flatter him. I am not against Komarova, but I - for Filipenko.

Analysts call the situation unprecedented since Vladimir Putin ended the popular election of regional leaders in 2005, as political analyst Alexander Kanev tells the daily "Kommersant":

Up until now there had been demands for the resignation of unpopular leaders, but as for demands to keep a sitting governor in power, this is the first time... The fact that such an action took place in such a prosperous city for political reason is an alarming sign for the Kremlin. The existing recruitment policy, which doesn't consider the will of the people, is dangerous.

The anger in Khanty-Mansisk is nowhere near that in Kaliningrad, which saw an estimated 10,000 people call for the resignation of Governor Georgiy Boos and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin last weekend. At least not yet.

But the developing situation in the Siberian region offers a sort of mirror image to the recent upheaval in Russia's northwestern exclave.

In economically distressed Kaliningrad, people were calling for the removal of a deeply unpopular governor who was brought in from Moscow and, in the opinion of many residents, treated it like a colony.

In prosperous Khanty-Mansisk, in contrast, locals are angry that the Kremlin is trying to remove a popular leader with roots in the region.

What the two cases have in common is that both caught an increasingly tone-deaf political elite in Moscow completely off guard.

From Rechnik to Kaliningrad to St. Petersburg to Khanty-Mansisk there is a growing restiveness in Russia's regions that the Kremlin ignores at its own peril. It only promises to grow as Moscow elite appears increasingly out of touch and preoccupied with its own parochial clan struggles.

It's a potentially deadly cocktail for the existing political order.

(h/t to Paul Goble at Window on Eurasia for flagging this story early)

-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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