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Moscow Times
June 11, 2009
Medvedev Threatens to Ax Governors
By Nabi Abdullaev / The Moscow Times

President Dmitry Medvedev said Wednesday that he would fire governors who failed to cope with unemployment and wage arrears.

His comments sent a clear signal that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would no longer rush to starving residents in one-industry towns, throw pens at business leaders and shovel out government money to pay wage arrears like he did in Pikalyovo last week.

"I want you to present this position clearly and unambiguously to the governors: Either they deal with the problems, or I will have to remove them from their offices irrespective of their merits," Medvedev told his envoys to Russia's seven federal districts during a video conference from his Gorki residence outside Moscow.

He told the envoys to gather the governors of their respective districts and tell them that they were responsible for dealing with unemployment and timely payments of salaries.

"If someone has difficulties and the process gets out of control, I will regard it as a demonstration of his incapacity to solve problems," Medvedev said, apparently referring to the public protests and blockade of a federal highway by Pikalyovo residents June 2.

The three factories in the Leningrad regional town had been paralyzed for several months because of the financial crisis. Putin flew there last Thursday and forced the owners, including billionaire Oleg Deripaska, to paywage arrears and reopen the factories.

Medvedev said Wednesday that it was "absolutely unacceptable" when "the country's leadership is forced to come and make decisions on the spot."

Governors who feel that they lack authority may turn to the presidential envoys and police for help, Medvedev said. But they should visit the troubled enterprises, talk to employees and negotiate with owners rather than wait for decisions to be made in Moscow or the capital of the respective federal district, he said.

"Otherwise, we will just have a paralysis of governance," the president said.

While Medvedev's decision might appear to be a departure from former President Putin's efforts to concentrate decision-making power in the Kremlin, it is actually just a way to find scapegoats for looming problems in the regions, said Alexei Titkov, an analyst with the Institute of Regional Studies.

This will also give Medvedev a free hand to replace governors, he said.

Leningrad Governor Valery Serdyukov is deeply disliked in Pikalyovo, where some residents think that he didn't step in to help them because he was nursing a grudge over the town's refusal to vote for him the last time gubernatorial elections were held, in 2003. Residents recall that as food ran short in March, the regional authorities sent a truck with packages of jelly rolls near and past their expiration date. Many sent back the stale jelly rolls, calling the aid humiliating.

Pikalyovo Mayor Sergei Veber declined to comment on the jelly rolls.

The day before the highway blockade, Serdyukov insisted that the situation was under control. "I know Pikalyovo's problems just like I know my own socks," Serdyukov said at a meeting with trade unions.

Serdyukov has served as governor since 1998, and he was reappointed to the post by Putin in 2007.

His office denied a report in Vedomosti this week that he had offered to resign around the time of Putin's visit to Pikalyovo.

Putin's intervention in the Pikalyovo crisis was seen by many political commentators as an opening of Pandora's box because now many unemployed people would be tempted to take to the streets in hope that Putin would come.

In October, just as the financial crisis began, Putin ordered the United Russia party, which he heads, to monitor the situation in one-industry towns like Pikalyovo. But the Pikalyovo crisis has demonstrated that the party could do little to prevent the situation from deteriorating.

Still, senior United Russia official Vyacheslav Volodin said Wednesday that the party would no longer allow situations like Pikalyovo. "We will go to the places, investigate the situation and use all the levers that the party has so people don't suffer," he said, RIA-Novosti reported.

Nadia Popova contributed to this report from Pikalyovo.