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Thursday, May 25, 2006

Kremlin Arrests Russia's Last Elected Governor

The Financial Times reports that the Kremlin has arrested another arch foe, this time the last duly elected governor in Russia's regions:

Alexei Barinov, governor of the oil-rich Nenets region, was arrested yesterday on suspicion of fraud and embezzlement in what local legislators and politicians des-cribed as a politically motivated attack on democracy.

Mr Barinov was the last governor to be elected by popular vote before a new system came into force that allows Vladimir Putin, the president, to appoint regional leaders.

Curbing the independence of Russia's 88 regions and bringing their governors in line with the Kremlin has been one of the main political changes brought by Mr Putin. Mr Barinov is the first regional head to be arrested and detained while in office. The arrest provoked anger in the small region north of the Arctic circle.

Viktor Fomin, a member of local parliament, said it was "a slap in the face" for people who voted for Mr Barinov. "This arrest raises serious questions about the state of democracy in our country."

He said the arrest, coming before parliamentary elections next year and presidential elections in 2008, was meant to show governors what would happen to them if they did not obey the Kremlin's orders.

"First they sent a message to media about what they can and cannot report by expelling Vladimir Gusinsky [the former owner of Russia's largest media holding]. Then they sent a signal to businessmen by jailing Mikhail Khodorkovsky [head of Yukos]. Governors are the next in line."

Victor Turovsky, a spokesman for Mr Barinov, linked the arrest to competition between oil companies. Mr Barinov, a former head of a subsidiary of Lukoil, Russia's largest oil company, had a stormy relationship with Rosneft, an oil group controlled by the state.

According to Mr Turovsky, he had initiated legal proceedings against Rosneft's subsidiary over its alleged failure to pay Rbs900m ($33m, €26m, £18m) to the region under a social responsibility agreement with the company.

Rosneft is chaired by Igor Sechin, the deputy head of the Kremlin administration who is believed to be behind the government's attack on Yukos and who has close links to the country's prosecutor-general.

Mr Barinov has also fallen out with Moscow over the region's representative in the country's upper house of parliament. Sergei Mironov, speaker of the upper house of parliament, demanded that four regions, including Nenets, revoke their sen-ators as part of an anti-corruption campaign launched earlier this month by Mr Putin.

A day after a regionalparliament refused to obey Moscow's order, a team of prosecutors descended on the regional administration, demanding to see the protocols of the parliamentary session, according to Mr Turovsky. He said there was a spontaneous wave of protest against Mr Barinov's arrest in the republic.

Mr Fomin said: "Just because there are only 40,000 people in our region, ourbig brother in Moscow thinks he can wipe his feet on us. People who live here may be small in number but proud in spirit and we will not tolerate it."

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