There was tension in the air when Kremlin envoy Nikolai Vinnichenko stepped behind the podium at the Khanty-Mansiisk legislature to introduce President Dmitry Medvedev's candidate to replace the region's highly popular governor.
Addressing a room full of deeply skeptical lawmakers, Vinnichenko stressed that Natalya Komarova, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party who has no ties whatsoever to Khanty-Mansiisk, would nevertheless bring a "new dynamic" to the energy-rich Siberian region.
As he left the rostrum to take his seat, Vinnichenko stumbled, tripped, and nearly fell over. After safely navigating her own way up to the podium, Komarova tried to ease the strain in the room, remarking that "the path to power is very steep."
The Khanty-Mansiisk Duma unanimously confirmed Komarova as governor on February 15, and she is due to be inaugurated on March 1. But it has been an unexpectedly messy appointment -- one that sparked howls of protest from locals, who objected to their long-standing governor, Aleksandr Filipenko, being replaced by an outsider, as part of Medvedev's stated attempt to bring fresh faces to the gubernatorial corps.
Analysts say the Kremlin is still strong enough to have its way in the regions. But in a worsening economy and with Russia's far-flung provinces becoming increasingly restive, doing so comes at a price.
"Especially in times of crisis, it's no longer possible for the Kremlin to make such moves without taking into account the interests of the incumbent governor himself and those of the regional political elite and the population," says Nikolai Petrov, a specialist on Russia's regions at the Moscow Carnegie Center.Voicing Opposition
When the Kremlin announced last week that Komarova would replace the popular Filipenko, widely seen as one of Russia's most effective regional leaders, the locals staged a mini-rebellion. An influential local newspaper editor penned an open letter to Medvedev expressing his opposition, and local residents held demonstrations.
Natalya Komarova does have ties to the energy industry.
The unexpected opposition in Khanty-Mansiisk came on the heels of massive protests in the northwestern exclave of Kaliningrad earlier this month, which saw approximately 10,000 come out to protest a tax hike and demand the resignation of their governor, Grigory Boos, and of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin
The two cases offer mirror images of each other. 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 the region like a colony. In prosperous Khanty-Mansiisk, by contrast, locals are angry that the Kremlin sought to remove a popular leader with deep roots in the region.
But in both cases, analysts say, a deep and festering anger with Moscow was evident and is only likely to grow.
"The population was passive as long as living standards were rising," Petrov says. "Now the government is no longer in a position to fulfill its obligations. That is why sooner or later this political passivity will be over and the population will become more active. This is especially dangerous when the governor is sent by Moscow from someplace else and is considered to be a stranger" by people in the region.Bring Back Elections
The rising regional discontent also comes as Russians are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Kremlin's policy of appointing regional leaders. A new poll released by the independent Levada Center this week showed that for the first time, a strong majority of Russian citizens, 54 percent, favor a return to the direct election of governors.
In 2005, Putin, then Russia's president, scrapped the direct election of governors on the pretext of imposing order in the wake of the September 2004 Beslan hostage siege. Under the system Putin installed, the Kremlin nominates governors who are then confirmed by regional legislatures, a process seen as a rubber-stamp exercise willingly carried out by the United Russia lawmakers that dominate regional parliaments.
At the time, Putin argued that the move was necessary to prevent further terrorist attacks. Critics say, however, that it was part of a strategy to bring the regions more tightly under Moscow's control.
"An absolute majority of Russian citizens favor the return of the direct election of governors," says Aleksei Levinson, a sociologist with the Levada Center, adding that the sentiment is especially strong among the young and highly educated.
"It is important to point out that governors represent one of the most important levels of authority. They are closer to ordinary Russians than the federal authorities, and therefore much depends on them. The idea of being able to elect them is attractive to Russians."
In recent weeks, momentum has been building to return to direct elections. A recent report by the Institute of Contemporary Development, a think tank associated with Medvedev, recommended they be restored.
Analysts say an unintended consequence of having appointed governors was that the Kremlin lost a crucial line of defense in the regions when things go bad. Under the old system, troubles in any given region were the responsibility of elected governors. But now, with appointed governors, the Kremlin owns any problems that arise.
Kremlin envoy to the Urals Nikolai Vinnichenko stumbled in introducing the new governor.
An increasing number of analysts say that given the current political dynamics, it likely only a matter of time before direct elections are restored.
"In my opinion, this is inevitable -- and the sooner the Kremlin realizes this, the better," Petrov says. "Five years ago, when they switched to this new system, they didn't fully realize that in taking power, they are also taking responsibility. Now that the balance between power and responsibility is clearly favoring responsibility, it's stupid to have this system and have the president and prime minister become the targets in case of any local trouble."
In the meantime, Medvedev is in the process of appointing a new cadre of governors as part of a stated effort to modernize Russia's political system. The president is focusing on appointing younger leaders, who he says will infuse fresh blood into the elite.
Critics say, however, that an added benefit for the Kremlin will be that younger governors who are less entrenched in their regions will be easier to manipulate.
The past year has already seen a series of long-serving governors step aside.
Last March, Oryol Oblast's Yegor Stroyev and Murmansk Oblast's Yury Yevdokimov were replaced. Longtime Sverdlovsk Oblast Governor Eduard Rossel retired in November. Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyuta stepped down in January after 13 years in power, followed by Tatarstan's President Mintimer Shaimiyev, who steps down in March.
Moscow's powerful Mayor Yury Luzhkov and Baskortostan's President Murtaza Rakhimov are widely believed to also be in the Kremlin's crosshairs -- although Kremlin-watchers say they will be among the most difficult to remove.
Meanwhile, speculation has been rampant about the real reason Medvedev wanted to replace the popular Filipenko in Khanty-Mansiisk. The daily "Vedomosti" quoted unidentified Kremlin officials as saying Komarova is being sent on a mission to unify Khanty-Mansiisk with two other Siberian regions, Yamalo-Nenets and Tyumen, perhaps to consolidate Kremlin authority in the region.
Others have pointed out the role of Russia's powerful oil and gas industry, which is seeking to protect its interests in energy-rich regions like Khanty-Mansiisk.
Moscow-based political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin notes that Komarova, who headed the State Duma's Natural Resources Committee, has close ties to Russia's energy industry, which made her an attractive candidate to lead Khanty-Mansiisk.
"The new governor is close to the interests of Gazprom. And since Khanty-Mansiisk is an oil and gas region, it's understandable that Gazprom wants to have its own person in place there," Oreshkin says.
In his speech to the Khanty-Mansiisk legislature, Kremlin envoy Vinnichenko praised outgoing Governor Filipenko and stressed that he will be honored with a state award. He is also expected to be given an unspecified federal post.
But the unexpected and vocal opposition to Filipenko's ouster, analysts say, resulted from the Kremlin's failure to prepare the regional elite and population for the replacement of a popular governor. Analysts say Russia is likely to see similar instances of pushback in the future.
"Moscow obviously didn't evaluate the situation [in Khanty-Mansiisk] and didn't make an agreement with the local political elite," Petrov says. "It is unlikely that the outbreaks of emotion we saw in Khanty-Mansiisk were spontaneous. They were most likely a product of the fact that the local elite was not pleased with the president's decision [to replace Filipenko]."RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report