(Recasts, adds fresh quote, background)
By Oleg Shchedrov and Conor Sweeney
MOSCOW, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev removed four regional governors and demoted a minister on Monday in one of the biggest purges in years, a sign of Kremlin concern that the global slowdown is fuelling social unrest.
Medvedev appeared to be making a concession to popular discontent over a slump that has caused thousands of lay-offs, cut a third off the value of the rouble since July and dented faith in the Kremlin’s economic stewardship.
The sackings also indicated that Medvedev — who has spent much of his nine months as president in the shadow of his powerful prime minister and predecessor Vladimir Putin — was starting to stamp his authority on the role.
“It’s a message to the public and the elites that the president is decisive,” said Masha Lipman, analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a think-tank. “There’s an obvious nervousness at the top because of potential unrest.”
Medvedev signed decrees relieving the governors of the Oryol, Pskov and Voronezh regions and the Nenetsky autonomous district of their jobs. A Kremlin spokesman said all the governors had asked to step down.
Another decree nominated Agriculture Minister Alexei Gordeyev as the new governor of Voronezh region. If the local legislature confirms him in that job, he will have to give up a ministerial post he has held for nearly 10 years.
The move represents a major demotion for Gordeyev, though Russian news agencies quoted him as saying he was happy to take on the new role.
Russia has 83 regional leaders. A senior Kremlin political advisor acknowledged a link between the personnel changes and a global slump which has hit Russia harder than many comparable emerging economies.
“When we started to observe a serious slowdown ... the shortcomings in state administration became noticeable and demanded prompt decisions,” Interfax news agency quoted Kremlin Deputy Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov as saying.
Ordinary Russians paid little attention to the performance of their rulers during a long economic boom that lasted until the middle of last year, but the slowdown is sure to put the government under intense scrutiny.
In a sign of the Kremlin’s nervousness, riot police were flown in from Moscow to break up a protest over tax rises in the Pacific port of Vladivostok in December, and officials have warned they will crack down on any threats to public order.
Sergei Dorenko, a political commentator, said Medvedev had now realised the need to make concessions to the public mood.
“I think it’s a very important change. Medvedev has to show who is guilty. If not, he will be guilty,” Dorenko, a former anchor on state-controlled television, told Reuters.
Russia’s economy is reeling from the twin effects of a sharp fall in the price of oil, its main export, and a liquidity crunch that has left many heavily-indebted companies struggling to repay their loans.
Joblessness hit a 2-1/2 year high in December of 7.7 percent while the economy is expected to shrink after years of high growth and the 2009 budget will slip into deficit for the first time in about a decade.
Medvedev, a soft-spoken former corporate lawyer, adopted an unusually tough tone in a Russian television interview at the weekend when discussing under-performing officials.
“We (will not) look the other way at, say, neglect of duty, lack of talent, laxity or sloppiness on the part of one official or another,” Medvedev said.
“In this situation, unfortunately, it is not possible to pat someone on the head and say: ‘Come on, you have to pull yourself together.’ You have to take serious decisions.” (Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Jon Boyle)