MOSCOW Russia's restive Dagestan region scrapped popular elections for governor on Thursday to allow President Vladimir Putin to pick its leader under a new law that critics have called a setback for democracy.
Dagestan was the first province to make use of the law, signed by Putin this month, allowing each of Russia's 83 regions to scrap direct gubernatorial elections, introduced only last year in a concession to a wave of protests against Putin's dominance.
Putin has said the law is needed to protect the rights of minorities in ethnically mixed regions such as the mostly Muslim provinces of the North Caucasus.
Russia is battling an Islamist insurgency in Dagestan and other North Caucasus provinces that is rooted in two post-Soviet wars in Chechnya, which borders Dagestan.
Putin has staked his reputation on the success and safety of the 2014 Winter Olympics next February in the mountain and beach resort city of Sochi, close to the North Caucasus.
The Kremlin is worried that elections there could spark unrest or usher in candidates whose loyalty is in question.
Putin fired Dagestan's governor in January and named Soviet-era politician Ramazan Abdulatipov, whom analysts view as having deeper political ties in Moscow than in his native province, as acting governor.
Provincial lawmakers in Dagestan voted 74-9 to scrap direct elections, with three abstentions.
Under the new rules, each regional legislature can vote to abandon popular elections, instead choosing their governor from a list of three candidates handed down by the president.
Putin began a six-year presidential term last May. His critics say the law may be used to sideline opposition candidates in favor of loyal governors and candidates from the ruling United Russia party.
Popular elections of governors were introduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Putin abolished them midway through his previous 2000-2008 presidency, citing the need for more control after deadly attacks by militants based in the North Caucasus.
They were reintroduced last year in a concession to a wave of street protests by Russians demanding a greater political voice. United Russia candidates won all five elections for governor held last October.
Dagestan is now the most violent of the North Caucasus provinces. Bombings, attacks on officials and gun battles are a near daily occurrence, many of them blamed on militants who say they want to carve out an Islamic state.
On Thursday, police said they discovered a cache of arms belonging to militants and over 200,000 roubles ($6,300) in cash as well as bomb-making instructions at a mosque in the mountain village of Gimry, the Interfax news agency reported.
($1 = 31.6880 Russian roubles)
(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Kevin Liffey)