In a nutshell, what happened was that there was an apparent split between Unified Russia's local leadership and Murmansk Oblast Governor Yury Yevdokimov (a Unified Russia member). As a result, Yevdokimov refused to back the Unified Russia candidate in the mayoral election, incumbent Mayor Mikhail Savchenko. In the end, independent candidate (and formerly Yevdokimov's deputy governor) Sergei Subbotin won the second round of voting on March 15 with more than 60 percent of the vote. The result was widely seen as a profound humiliation for the party of power, which announced plans to contest the results in court.
So much for what is known. The general interpretation is that the conflict was the result of an inter-clan struggle on the local level that resulted in a significant embarrassment for Unified Russia. That explanation seems fair, but incomplete to me. The question that still nags is: Why didn't the purportedly all-powerful Vladimir Putin, supreme leader of Unified Russia and presumably of Russia as well, not pick up the phone to one clan or the other and settle the matter? And don't tell me it was because he didn't want to unfairly influence the democratic process!
Today the press is full of "reports" that Yevdokimov's dismissal is imminent. "Moskovsky komsomolets" reports that the decision has already been made and will be announced at any moment. The daily added that the Kremlin wants to prevent Yevdokimov from managing to oust the speaker of the oblast legislature, which presumably could complicate the normally sedate process of confirming the president's selection to replace Yevdokimov. Other press reports, summarized here, called Yevdokimov a "traitor" and worse.
Yevdokimov, incidentally, is a fairly powerful regional leader (see his CV here). He was first elected to head the oblast in 1996, was elected governor in 1997, got a second term with 87 percent of the vote in 2000, won a third term with 77 percent in 2004, and was confirmed for a fourth term by Putin in February 2007.
Needless to say, there are also countless reports that Yevdokimov will be excluded from Unified Russia. Interestingly, removing him as governor would (formally, at least) be President Dmitry Medvedev's decision, while booting him from the party would be Putin's.
On the other hand, local press in Murmansk reported that Yevdokimov has been granted a state citation by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) for his contribution to developing and supporting the electoral system in Russia. Just four days earlier, though, TsIK head Vladimir Churov told journalists that the commission is looking into evidence that Yevdokimov engaged in illegal campaigning on election day. A commission statement hinted that the violation might have been significant enough that the TsIK would seek a court order overturning the result.
For his part, Yevdokimov gave an interview to gazeta.ru today in which he tried to play down the dispute and the allegation that he illegally campaigned. In fact, he said that he did not even support Subbotin, although he made his opposition to Savchenko plain. He also said he is a loyal Unified Russia supporter and that his objections were to "specific individuals" rather than to the party itself. He complained the party's central leadership "didn't listen to people who know the local situation, to people giving correct advice."
This view would seem to run counter to efforts Putin has made in recent months to solidify the central management of the party.
Yevdokimov also said that he objects to Savchenko and his supporters because they are corrupt: "People keep asking me: 'Why do you need this? Sit still and be quiet. So they are stealing -- let them steal and drain money out of the city budget, what's it to you? Why get involved?' But, you see, my daddy didn't raise me that way. I guess I'm a dinosaur, one of the last maybe. But I can't stand that." Fighting corruption is also a key theme of Medvedev's presidency, so playing that card would also make it harder for the Kremlin to dismiss him.
Despite the swirling rumors of his impending dismissal, Yevdokimov said he continues to work effectively with the president's envoy to the Far North, with the presidential administration, the Central Bank, and other federal entities. "I haven't felt any change in relations from their side and I don't expect that I will," he said.
But he couldn't dismiss the possibility that forces within Unified Russia are playing up the conflict (or even created it in the first place) precisely to secure his removal as governor. The governor of Murmansk Oblast plays a key role in the development of the massive Shtokman gas field a multibillion-dollar project connected to the Nord Stream gas pipeline to Europe.
"I see only friends, coworkers, colleagues working to develop Shtokman as quickly as possible," he said. "But the possibility that someone else, maybe, wants to latch onto that project can't be excluded. But I don't know about that yet."
In short, the interview doesn't solve the mystery surrounding the Murmansk election. And the interviewer didn't ask the question I most wanted answered: Where was Putin?