President Dmitry Medvedev has submitted a law to the State Duma that would empower Kremlin-friendly regional parliaments to remove elected city bosses from office. The Duma is almost certain to pass the measure, but with local elections approaching on March 1, the ruling Unified Russia party is in no mood to wait to start the housecleaning.
First up: Vladislav Khaletsky, the mayor of Smolensk.
Khaletsky planned to seek reelection on March 1. Unified Russia wanted him to step aside in favor of their preferred candidate, Valery Razuvayev. Khalensky, a member of Unified Russia himself, refused to budge.
So at a meeting of the local Unified Russia Political Council on February 2, he was criticized for the poor state of the city's streets, utilities, and public service -- and summarily stripped of his party membership. Khaletsky says he plans to go to court to assure he can run for mayor in March anyway.
The party also expelled three more members, Eduard Kachanovsky, Yury Mikhailov, and Igor Yukhimenko, who has also planned to run for mayor.
In case anybody had any doubts about whether the move was approved by Moscow, a high-ranking national party member, State Duma Deputy Ivan Lobanov, was present at the meeting. "The situation in Smolensk is horrible," Lobanov told "Nezavisimaya gazeta," adding that Khaletsky's administration couldn't even "manage snow removal."
But "Kommersant" adds some details to suggest Khaletsky's removal was about more than bad city management. Khaletsky enjoyed good relations with the Smolensk Oblast's former governor, Viktor Maslov, who resigned in 2007. His relations with Maslov's successor, Sergei Antufeyev, however, have been marked by constant conflict between the regional and local authorities.
A year ago -- or even several months ago -- Khaletsky's removal would be a clear sign of Unified Russia's power. But today, it looks like anything but.
Not least of all because Smolensk is far from the only city where the ruling party is having problems. In Murmansk, to cite one example, Unified Russia has nominated the incumbent mayor, Mikhail Savchenko, for reelection. But the regional governor, Yury Yevdokimov -- also a Unified Russia member -- is supporting the candidacy of his deputy, Sergei Subbotin.
It is unclear whether Unified Russia will discipline Yevdokimov and Subbotin for their insubordination.
Unified Russia appears to be getting a bit nervous. These is the very real prospect of unrest in the regions as the economic crisis deepens. There is also a greater likelihood that we will see more splits and controversies like those in Smolensk and Murmansk.
Moreover, even with all the administrative methods at the party's disposal to fix the vote in the March 1 elections, analysts are not expecting Unified Russia to come close to the overwhelming victories it won in recent elections.
They'll "win" the vote for sure, but March 1 may just give us some sense about the strength of Vladimir Putin's vaunted power vertical in bad economic times.
-- Brian Whitmore