The Moscow Times reports on yet another arrest of a potential Kremlin rival elected to office. First a governor, then three senators and now a mayor. Welcome to the Neo-Soviet Union, where the Russian people stand idly and cowardly by and watch it happen.
Volgograd's prosecutor opened a criminal case Wednesday against Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko, possibly laying the groundwork for the end of direct mayoral elections, political analysts said.
Ishchenko was the first mayor of a big city to be arrested and charged with abuse of office and conducting illegal business.
Political analysts said the Kremlin was looking to secure loyal city leaders to guarantee a good showing for United Russia in State Duma elections next year and a smooth handover of power to President Vladimir Putin's designated successor in 2008.
Ishchenko is a member of United Russia.
"Since the scrapping of direct gubernatorial elections, the Kremlin has been trying to find a way to put an end to mayoral elections," said Maxim Dianov, head of the Institute for Regional Problems. "This arrest could give them the chance to follow through on that plan."
Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyuta said Wednesday that he had given orders to appoint an acting governor, Gazeta.ru reported. "Today my deputy will appoint an acting [mayor]," he said from Moscow. "Tomorrow, when I come back, I will finish the job."
Maksyuta added that the law permitting direct elections of mayors should be changed "in order to get some subordination."
In Volgograd, a statement from the prosecutor's office said that Ishchenko "for the past three years has used his power in a way that conflicts with the duties of his position," Interfax reported.
The prosecutor's statement added that Ishchenko gave Tamerlan, a firm that owns Pyatyorochka supermarkets, tax breaks and other advantages.
Prosecutors also accused Ishchenko of doling out in 2005 and 2006 unwarranted bonuses to city employees.
In April, United Russia deputies drafted legislation allowing governors to confiscate the powers of mayors who managed their cities poorly.
Under the proposal, mayors would lose most of their powers in the event of natural disaster, debt exceeding 30 percent of the city's revenue intake or mismanagement by the city of federal subsidies.
The Duma is expected to consider the legislation before the end of its spring session.
Dianov said governors, who are appointed by the Kremlin, had lost interest in cultivating rural voters. Those voters, who comprise one-third of the country's voting population and will play a key role in upcoming elections, are controlled by mayors of small cities and towns.
"The Kremlin fully controls the governors, who will work to guarantee a good showing for United Russia, but they don't have the complete control of the mayors," Dianov said.
The Kremlin, Dianov said, wants authority over of big-city mayors because they control a large portion of the revenues that flow into federal coffers.
The arrest of the mayor of Volgograd, a city of 1.2 million, would make it easier for the presidential administration to justify scrapping mayoral elections as part of an anti-corruption campaign, Dianov said.
Mikhail Kuznetsov, the governor of the Pskov region, said as much Wednesday when he called for the Kremlin to abolish mayoral elections.
"Only when mayors are elected by governors will it be possible, first, to guarantee a high level of responsibility at all levels of government, and secondly, to stop shaking public opinion with fabricated criminal cases," Kuznetsov said, Interfax reported.
Ishchenko, perceived at home as closer to Moscow businessmen than local entrepreneurs, had battled with the local branch of United Russia, said Yury Korgunyuk, an analyst at the Indem think-tank. The pro-Kremlin party balked when the mayor opted not to give many city jobs to party members, Korgunyuk said.
The Volgograd branch of United Russia had proposed to its leadership that it expel Ishchenko from the party.
About 300 people gathered Wednesday near Volgograd's City Hall to call for Ishchenko's dismissal, Interfax reported.