Prosecutors say they are combating rampant corruption in municipal administrations. But the lawsuits are widely seen as part of another, ongoing battle -- one aimed at muzzling dissent in the regions ahead of key elections.
Spotlight On Tomsk
In December 2006, Aleksandr Makarov, the mayor of the Siberian city of Tomsk, was visited by police at his office.
He was accused of receiving bribes in exchange for lucrative construction contracts and taken to a detention center. Further corruption charges were pressed against him after police allegedly found large amounts of cash in his home.
Makarov has been in jail awaiting a court verdict ever since. He was suspended from his post and is recovering from a heart attack suffered during the search of his home. He rejects all charges and has lodged a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights.
Makarov's case is not isolated. Over the past year, a dozen mayors in Russia have been detained and taken to court on corruption-related charges.
Russian political analyst Mark Urnov says less noble motives lurk behind what appears to be a clampdown on corruption.
"What is most likely to be happening here is a replacement of mayors who are disliked either by the governor of the federal government," Urnov said. "As a rule, relations between mayors of regional capitals and governors are not very good. Governors -- because they are directly connected to the federal government -- now have many possibilities to put pressure on elected mayors who displease them."
This view is shared by Dmitry Oreshkin, director of the Mercator Research Group, which specializes in political monitoring in Russia's regions.
Oreshkin says money is also a driving force in the battle for control of the cities.
"In Russia, 73 percent of the population lives in cities, and Russia's main economic riches are generated in cities," Oreshkin said. "City elites control the chief industries, the chief source of the gross regional product. So governors, who are part of the vertical of power, have no control over the main section of financial flows. This is why there is a huge drive to make [mayors] dependent on gubernatorial elites, to integrate them into the vertical of power."
Since assuming power in 2000, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to consolidate what he likes to refer to as the "vertical of power" -- top-down, centralized administration.
In 2004, he scrapped the popular election of regional governors. Candidates are now nominated by the president for approval by regional assemblies. Securing loyalty in the regions is particularly important for the Kremlin as Russia prepares to elect a new federal parliament in December 2007 and a new president in March 2008.
With the governors now under control, Moscow is eager to rein in mayors, who remain elected by popular vote and have influence over millions of rural voters.
"This is really a systemic phenomenon," Oreshkin said. "The authorities are trying to deal a severe blow to the mayors' independence. The easiest way of achieving that is to frighten them, to accuse mayors of real or fabricated abuses. These violations can be simply ridiculous, for instance with the mayor of Arkhangelsk, of Volgograd, and many other mayors."
Arkhangelsk's 37-year-old mayor, Aleksandr Donskoi, fell from grace in February, when prosecutors indicted him on four counts -- faking a university diploma, using it to obtain a second higher education, using budget funds to pay for his son's bodyguards, and authorizing a company to build a shopping center without governmental clearance.
He told RFE/RL that the charges against him are retaliation for his plans to run for president in 2008.
"I declared in October that I would run for president," Donskoi said. "After this, criminal cases were opened. What's more, I was made to understand that these criminal cases are connected to my declaration that I planned to run. The people who commissioned these criminal cases are federal officials, together with the governor of the Arkhangelsk Oblast."
Donskoi has not given up his presidential ambitions. But he predicts that he will soon be dismissed from his mayoral post and blocked from participating in any election.
Volgograd's former mayor, Yevgeny Ishchenko, seems equally unlikely to make a strong political comeback after his trial.
Ishchenko was sentenced to one year in prison on June 13 on charges of possessing ammunition and engaging in illegal business activities. He was freed in the courtroom since he had already spent more than one year in preliminary detention.
As mayor, Ishchenko had repeatedly clashed with the local branch of Russia's ruling pro-Kremlin party, Unified Russia, and with the regional governor.
But after a year in jail, the once firebrand mayor is shying away from the spotlight -- and from commenting on who could have initiated the charges against him.
"Honestly, I can't judge, I don't know," Ishchenko said. "What happened, happened. But I don't consider myself guilty of what I've been accused of. I don't exclude the possibility of a political order, I can't name those behind it. It's hard for me to judge, and to be honest, I'm very tired of this whole story, I don't want to go back to it. I want to have a quiet, private life, because I'm very tired of this story."
A few more heads are likely to roll ahead of the upcoming elections. Mayors could then vanish altogether from Russia's political landscape -- Unified Russia deputies are expected to wait until after the elections to move ahead with a controversial draft law giving governors to option of scrapping the post of mayor in their region.
FROM BAD TO WORSE. RFE/RL and Freedom House experts held a panel discussion at which they analyzed the erosion of press freedom in many CIS countries. According to Freedom House rankings, in 1994, six of the 12 CIS countries were rated "partly free"; by 2004, 11 of the 12 were rated "not free."
LISTENListen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
Real Audio Windows Media