Russian President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the governor of the Samara Oblast, Nikolai Merkushkin, amid speculation that a shake-up of regional leaders is imminent ahead of a presidential election in March.
The move, in a decree announced on September 25, comes weeks after Kremlin-backed candidates swept to victory in gubernatorial elections that Putin's spokesman said demonstrated voters' approval of the president's regional personnel policies.
The decree on the Kremlin website said that Putin accepted Merkushkin's resignation and appointed Dmitry Azarov, a member of Russia's upper parliament house and a former mayor of the city of Samara, as acting governor of the region on the Volga River.
With a separate decree, Putin appointed Merkushkin as his representative to the World Congress of the Finno-Ugric Peoples.
Merkushkin had been governor of Samara Oblast since May 2012. Before that, he was head of his native Republic of Mordovia -- whose indigenous ethnic group, the Mordvinians, speak a Finno-Ugric language.
Rumors have bubbled in recent weeks about the possible looming dismissals of a string of regional heads, speculation that has snowballed since Kremlin-backed candidates swept all 16 gubernatorial elections held on September 10.
Political analysts have linked the potential shake-up to preparations for the presidential election scheduled for March 18, 2018, in which Putin is widely expected to seek and secure a fourth term even though he has not announced his candidacy.
In past elections, the Kremlin has looked to regional governors to secure as much support as possible for Putin.
In the run-up to the September 10 elections, Putin had dismissed several regional heads and installed acting replacements who went on to win their respective posts on the ticket of the ruling United Russia party. Like Azarov, 47, several of these new governors are younger than 50 and were plucked from government posts in Moscow.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on September 11 that the success of United Russia candidates in the gubernatorial elections shows a "deep trust" in the candidates Putin put forward.
Kremlin critics accused authorities of exploiting a bureaucratic requirement to narrow the field in the gubernatorial elections and prevent potentially strong candidates from challenging United Russia in the elections.
Hours before Merkushkin's dismissal was announced, the Russian newspaper Kommersant had cited unnamed sources close to the Kremlin as saying he would soon be out.
Kommersant also quoted unnamed sources as saying governors of several other regions -- including Ivanovo, Nizhny Novgorod, Murmansk, Novosibirsk, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Altai Krai, and the Nenets Autonomous Region -- would step down in the coming days.
Asked about the Kommersant report, Peskov said on September 25 that "people write all kinds of things" and that the Kremlin did not confirm or deny reports about personnel moves.
With reporting by Kommersant, Interfax, and TASS