There were a few important demarches directed at Moscow last week in the regions. In Dagestan, local clans blocked the new head of the local tax service from entering his workplace. Moscow had appointed the official without regard to the local custom of filling ethnic quotas. That practice demands that since the outgoing tax chief was an ethnic Lezgin, his replacement should be a Lezgin also. The republic's president, Mukhu Aliyev, 66, was in Moscow during the disturbance, but his son, who serves as deputy chief of the tax service, took an active part in the conflict.

Dagestan is the only remaining Caucasus ethnic republic that hasn't experienced a change in the generation of leaders. Three years ago, Moscow reached an agreement for the retirement of the republic's previous long-serving leader, Mogamedali Magomedov, on the condition that his son be made speaker of the Dagestani parliament. The opportunities for making decisive changes to the political landscape in the Caucasus are limited. A new wave of terrorism is spreading throughout the region, and Moscow has less financial leverage than it had before.

In Murmansk, Governor Yury Yevdokimov entered into public conflict with United Russia by not only putting forward his personal candidate for the city's mayor, but by accusing his fellow party members of dirty politics.

There are also conflicts in other regions as we approach the elections on March 1. These are especially prominent in elections of parliaments in eight regions and mayoral elections in 10 regional centers. Before, United Russia used the governors as "locomotives" to promote party candidates in regional elections. But now, the party is trying to distance itself from the authorities, particularly since the federal government has come under greater criticism during the economic crisis.

United Russia is conducting an intensive house cleaning of its regional party ranks, most frequently opting for candidates favored more by the regional political elite than by the Kremlin. This is especially true of the speakers of regional parliaments, many of whom also run United Russia's local offices.

It is important to note that the demarches against Moscow took place not in developed, economically independent regions such as Moscow and Tatarstan, as had been the case in the past, but in regions that are relatively weak and that are largely subsidized by the federal budget. These public displays of discontent could easily increase in intensity and frequency as the crisis worsens.

In a deepening economic crisis, it is inevitable that there would be an increasing number of public conflicts in the regions. The real question is the extent to which they can be curbed. In recent years, the Kremlin has given a preference to obedient functionaries to fill gubernatorial positions, passing over other candidates with proven leadership skills. If tomorrow these governors must address angry crowds who are opposed to the authorities, most will be unable to meet the challenge. There are people who could handle this turbulent situation -- most of them are experienced politicians from the Yeltsin era who lived through the demonstrations and protests in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But today, they number fewer than a dozen.
 

This comment first appeared in The Moscow Times.