By Timothy Heritage
MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin's attempts to reassert his grip on Russia after months of protests look likely to force the removal of one of the few liberal leaders outside Moscow.
The local parliament in the vast Kirov region in central Russia has called a no-confidence vote in governor Nikita Belykh for February 14 which is likely to oust the man appointed by Dmitry Medvedev, Putin's predecessor as president.
His departure would spell the end of an experiment under which Medvedev installed him in 2009 to test whether liberals could be co-opted into local government, and extend Putin's policy of rolling back Medvedev's reforms.
The Kremlin has distanced itself from the events in Kirov, a region which is bigger than Hungary and is still named after a Bolshevik whose assassination in 1934 was used by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin as a pretext for his purges.
Politicians in the region, whose capital is 900 km (600 miles) east of Moscow, say Belykh has simply done a bad job.
"The governor's liberal policies have not only not made living conditions any better for many people in the region, but have made them worse," said Valery Rashkin, a local Communist Party deputy.
But the motion to vote no confidence in the 37-year-old governor was proposed by a local lawmaker from Putin's United Russia, and it is unlikely it did not have the approval of the party's national leadership or the Kremlin.
"The chances of deputies voting no confidence in Belykh ... are quite high," said political analyst Yevgeny Minchenko. "I think it is a game that has been agreed on and could hardly have gone ahead without Moscow's approval."
Belykh was not immediately available for comment.
Putin is aware that having his own people in charge of the regions, some of them thousands of miles from Moscow, could be crucial to reasserting his authority over the whole of the country of more than 140 million people.
The move follows months of pressure on Belykh, who had been the deputy governor of the Perm region in the Ural Mountains and then a leader of a pro-business party based in Moscow before his appointment in Kirov in January 2009.
The governor's treatment has much in common with the tactics used against Kremlin opponents in Moscow since Putin returned to the presidency in May after four years as premier, facing the biggest protests since he rose to power in 2000.
Since May the Russian parliament, dominated by Putin loyalists, has enacted a series of laws that have been used to stifle dissent, including increasing fines for holding illegal protests and the punishment for slander and treason.
Several opposition leaders have also been charged with crimes which they say are trumped up and intended to encourage them to stop their political activities against a leader they say has tried to crush civil liberties.
Belykh's links to Kremlin opponents came under national scrutiny in August when Alexei Navalny, the organizer of anti-Putin protests in Moscow, was charged with theft from a state timber firm while working as an adviser to Belykh in 2009.
The pressure culminated in a search of Belykh's office last week by federal investigators and police as part of an investigation into a separate case involving the alleged theft of 90 million roubles ($3 million).
Belykh has denied any wrongdoing and is only a witness in the case but Putin's critics saw it as a warning from the Kremlin, which has gradually reversed the more liberal policies pursued by Medvedev as president from 2008 until last May.
"The searches in Nikita's office are a clear sign of the end of the 'Medvedev thaw'," commented Maria Gaidar, a critic of Putin and a former deputy to Belykh.
She and Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, were questioned by police on Tuesday as investigators build up their case against Navalny - a process which Nemtsov described as "political repressions".
Belykh's departure would signal the failure of Medvedev's experiment in 2009, widely seen as an attempt to assert his independence of Putin, who ushered him into the Kremlin to skirt constitutional term limits.
By appointing Belykh, Medvedev sought to appease liberals who had felt marginalized under Putin. But the 83 regional governors remain dominated by Putin allies and Belykh has often seemed like the odd-man out among them.
Medvedev also offered protesters a concession a year ago by proposing restoring public elections of regional governors, reversing Putin's decision in his first presidency to scrap the direct elections so that he could pick governors himself.
Putin worked hard to rein in Russia's regions during his first presidency, preventing what some had feared could be the break-up of the country, and parliament is now considering a law that would allow regions to scrap popular elections of their leaders and allow Putin to choose candidates instead.
(Reporting by Timothy Heritage; editing by Ralph Boulton)