Anatoly Lisitsyn did something remarkable not long ago. He spoke out against the Kremlin.
Lisitsyn, the governor of the industrial region of Yaroslavl, northeast of the capital, complained that the central government was hoarding tax receipts for itself while leaving the regions too strapped to pay for Moscow's promises. Then last month came a move that many Russians saw as a response from the Kremlin: Authorities charged him with abuse of power for some budget decisions.
President Vladimir Putin has made it a top priority to keep governors in line since taking office nearly five years ago. Long before he decided this week to eliminate the popular election of governors and appoint them himself, Putin effectively controlled who would lead Russia's diverse regions. People who got in the way were knocked off the ballot for supposed technical violations or became targets of prosecution that many people took to be political.
Analysts estimate that 90 percent of Russia's governors were actually chosen by the Kremlin, but they say the other 10 percent began to gnaw at Putin and his circle. A few repudiations in gubernatorial elections -- including victories by the head of a milk factory and a television comedian over favored incumbents -- embarrassed the Kremlin this year. And then this summer, several governors such as Lisitsyn dared to openly criticize Moscow's fiscal policies.
"This criticism was pretty frequent and public, and it wasn't liked by certain people who are close to the president," said Aleksei Bushuyev, director of the Information Agency and Analytical Center, a consulting firm in Yaroslavl. So Putin opted to abolish the election of governors. "This is a decision to run everything himself right from Moscow," Bushuyev said.
Critics have called the president's plan a devastating blow to Russia's fragile democracy. But many analysts and independent politicians believe Putin had already so methodically rolled back some of the reforms of the post-Soviet period that the voting had lost much of its meaning.
Genuine competition between candidates and parties has disappeared in virtually any race in which the Kremlin takes an interest. Television channels broadcast only what authorities permit. The parliament has been cleansed of any effective opposition, and business magnates have been ordered to stay out of politics or risk losing their assets and personal freedom.
The vast majority of the country's 89 regional leaders already subordinate themselves to the Kremlin, and now they will serve it officially. "It will not change the regional elite," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant. "On the contrary, it will confirm the regional elite."
Belkovsky, who has close ties to the hard-liners in the Kremlin known as the siloviki, or "men of power," said the real goal of the Putin plan is to assert control over funding sources. Anyone who wants to be a governor will be required to pay secret fees of $50 million or more to "a special fund created in the shadow of the Kremlin," he predicted.
"It's widely discussed, implicitly though not openly," said Belkovsky, who earned credibility last year when he predicted the crackdown on the oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. "People around the Kremlin, people around governors, everybody's preparing to negotiate. Governors who are not prepared to negotiate financial conditions and defend their positions will be fired for sure."
Putin has so successfully cowed the governors that virtually none of them has objected to his power play. Most have embraced the plan -- including such Western-oriented reformers as Gov. Mikhail Prusak of Novgorod.
"Those who criticize Putin's proposals by saying it's a step backward in democracy are really just a dozen people," Prusak said in an interview. "This doesn't mean that Putin will replace all the governors. What he is trying to do is replace them in hot spots where he needs them."
Many governors may be backing the plan because, like Prusak, they are nearing the end of their terms and could be reappointed under the new system. "They will all say, 'Yes, please,' and they will all say, 'We've been asking for this for years,' " said Maksim Dianov, director of the Institute of Regional Problems, a research organization. "At the moment these people become governors, they immediately become loyal to the president the next second. We don't have any exceptions whatsoever."
The situation represents a dramatic change from the era of Boris Yeltsin, Putin's predecessor, who told regional leaders to grab "all the sovereignty you can swallow" and later rued the fact that they took him at his word. Putin came to power at the end of 1999 determined to rein in governors who ruled their regions with broad authority, often ignoring federal law. He took away their seats in parliament, appointed seven presidential envoys to oversee them and seized control of some local agencies and tax revenue.
In 2002, the president disavowed any desire to appoint governors. "The leaders of the regions are elected by the people in a direct, secret ballot," he said then. "That is what the constitution prescribes, and that is how it should stay."
But when he ran into problems with regional leaders, he often removed them. Putin did not get along with the leader of Ingushetia, for instance, and replaced him with a fellow KGB veteran in the next election after a Kremlin-orchestrated campaign. Authorities disqualified from the ballot governors or candidates in regions as diverse as Kursk in the west, Chechnya in the south and Primorye in the far east.
Governors who survived competed for Kremlin favor by delivering votes in Putin's March reelection, when there were reports of ballot-box stuffing. While the president received 71 percent nationwide, the new head of Ingushetia reported a 98 percent vote for his friend Putin.
But from time to time, voters have not cooperated. Against Kremlin wishes, Mikhail Yevdokimov, a comedian in Altai, Nikolai Kiselyov, a milk factory director in Arkhangelsk, and the deputy governor of Magadan, Nikolai Dudov, all won elections. Even in Putin's home town of St. Petersburg, the Kremlin-backed candidate, Valentina Matvienko, needed a second round of voting to win the majority required to get into the governor's office.
Putin's power "was not 100 percent," said Maria Matskevich, deputy director of the Center for the Study and Forecasting of Social Processes in St. Petersburg. "There were some limits. I don't think St. Petersburg was the last point where they lost their temper, but maybe St. Petersburg was one of the reasons."
Then several governors bucked Putin's unpopular plan to overhaul the Soviet-era social welfare system, convinced that they would have to shoulder the burden. Several governors in the far east signed a joint letter complaining to the Kremlin.
"It was most dangerous for the Kremlin when governors started collective action," said Nikolai Petrov, a regional specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center. "It came all of a sudden for the Kremlin. They were sure that governors were totally subordinated to them."
Soon, insiders close to the Kremlin began whispering that Putin's team was preparing a campaign against the governors for the fall. In May, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation of the governor of Saratov, Dmitri Ayatskov, then later went after Lisitsyn in Yaroslavl. The Supreme Court ruled against Gov. Konstantin Titov of Samara in a dispute over his next election.
"All of this shows you could only win if you have the consent of the presidential administration," said Igor Yermolenko, head of the Yabloko party in Samara. "In order to prevent this kind of situation from happening again, Putin decided to appoint governors."