MOSCOW (Reuters) -- Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has removed a regional governor who spoke out against the ruling party, in a signal to senior officials that public criticism of the Kremlin will not be tolerated.
Analysts say the Kremlin is worried that the economic slump -- which has forced it to trim budget spending and driven jobless levels to a five-year high -- could threaten its tight grip over the government hierarchy.
Medvedev ordered the removal of Yuri Yevdokimov, governor of the north-western Murmansk region which borders Finland and Norway, according to a presidential decree dated March 21.
"The Kremlin's actions are [designed to] scare the governors," said Nikolai Petrov, an expert on regional politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think tank.
Governors have been deferential to the Kremlin since former President Vladimir Putin curbed their powers. But in the past few months the powerful leaders of Moscow and the Urals region of Bashkortostan have argued publicly with the government.
Analysts say the downturn is creating tension between the Kremlin and the leaders of Russia's 83 regions, who are struggling to deal with mounting social discontent at a time when federal subsidies are being cut.
"It is obvious how not just protests but public protests from governors are growing, and I think that is what worries the Kremlin most of all," said Petrov.
"It is not that there are conflicts, they have always existed, but until now these conflicts were resolved within the elite, and it was rare that they came to the surface." 'Dirty Tricks'
The decree on Yevdokimov's removal, posted on the presidential Internet site kremlin.ru, said he had been removed at his own request -- a formula routinely used when an official is sacked.
A Kremlin loyalist, Yevdokimov had fallen out with the United Russia party, which is led by Putin and dominates parliament, over an election for a new mayor in the region's main city of Murmansk.
Yevdokimov did not back the United Russia candidate but instead put his support behind an independent candidate, Sergei Subbotin, who went on to win the election last week.
During an ill-tempered campaign, Yevdokimov had publicly accused United Russia of using dirty tricks to mobilise support for its candidate.
Commenting on his dismissal in a statement posted on the regional government's Internet site, Yevdokimov said: "I was always prepared to take responsibility for my actions and, of course, I expected that this decision would be taken."