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Top Kremlin aide visits ‘dissident’ governor

Published on 22/06/2009

Moscow -- The Kremlin on Friday sent its top ideologue to meet a regional leader who shocked the country by comparing the domination of the ruling United Russia party to the Soviet Union's one-party state.

Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, met Murtaza Rakhimov in Ufa, the capital of the southern region of Bashkortostan, Russian news agencies reported.

Rakhimov — himself a United Russia member — astonished Russia earlier this month with his unprecedented criticism of the party, saying that the level of centralisation in Russia was now "worse than in Soviet times."

A source told Interfax the visit would allow the local authorities "to correct that situation into which they pushed themselves by criticising the federal authorities and ruling party to achieve local goals."

"This visit will give them the chance to correct the situation and save face," the source added.

The leader of United Russia — which has a huge majority in the State Duma, as the lower house of parliament is called — is strongman Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, though curiously he is not a formal member of the party.

In an interview with the popular Moskovsky Kosomolets newspaper earlier this month, Rakhimov said that "everything comes from above in our country. The level of centralisation is even worse than in Soviet times."

"It is very bad that one party controls everything. There should be as a minimum of two parties, like in the United States or Britain," he added.

"You call that a parliament?" he said, referring to the Duma. "It’s shameful to look at."

Rakhimov’s comments — which came at a time when the economic crisis has rattled the country’s leadership — marked a rare criticism of United Russia from within and prompted expressions of bewilderment from its chiefs.

Nonetheless the Russian authorities have been troubled by rumblings of political and social discontent across their vast and multi-ethnic country as it grapples with the economic crisis.

The Kommersant newspaper Friday quoted the youthful governor of the western Pskov region, Andrei Turchak, as calling for United Russia to become a "normal political force" or else face defeat at the ballot box in the future.

Rakhimov’s region is officially known as the Republic of Bashkortostan and Muslims — mostly ethnic Bashkirs and Tatars — easily outnumber Orthodox Christian Slavs there.

"His (Rakhimov’s) comments sounded like a manifesto from the regions whose dissatisfaction with the federal centre has piled up," commented the Russian weekly Newsweek.

On his visit, Surkov praised the region’s balancing of its different ethnic traditions and pledged that the Russian political system would develop: "We can’t accept it just stays as it is," he was quoted as saying.

Surkov, a major behind-the-scenes figures in Russian politics, has held his post since 1999 and is seen as the main theorist of the Kremlin’s strong-government ideology.

His boss, President Dmitry Medvedev, has the power to sack Rakhimov but it was not expected that Surkov’s visit would lead to the dismissal of the longtime regional leader.

Some commentators have expressed amazement that Rakhimov had not already been expelled from the party and have speculated that he gave his controversial interview with a feeling of full security.

The Vedomosti daily newspaper said he may have sensed that regional leaders have more latitude under the presidency of Medvedev than under the eight-year rule of Putin, Medvedev’s predecessor in the Kremlin.

"The experienced Ufa politician may have caught some kind of new mood in the Kremlin, that criticism of Moscow is possible and at times even necessary. We could call the Rakhimov case a kind of experiment," Vedomosti wrote.