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Russia's Medvedev replaces Yeltsin-era governor

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Tuesday replaced the veteran governor of a Urals mountains region, one of the last of a generation of powerful regional heads who held sway before a return to centralized Kremlin rule.

Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev speaks with German journalists at the Gorki residence outside Moscow, November 7, 2009. REUTERS/Ria Novosti/Kremlin/Mikhail Klimentyev

Eduard Rossel, 72, belonged to a wave of leaders who bid to win more autonomy for their fiefdoms in the first post-Soviet decade but who were tamed by former president and Medvedev mentor Vladimir Putin.

Rossel became boss of the Sverdlovsk region in 1990, when the Soviet Union started falling apart amid a power struggle between leader Mikhail Gorbachev and independent-minded leaders of Soviet republics, led by Boris Yeltsin.

Rossel enthusiastically responded to Yeltsin’s call to regional heads to “grab as much autonomy as you can hold,” which was effectively an encouragement not to pay taxes or obey the central government.

Once Yeltsin became the first Russian president, however, Rossel’s pro-autonomy mood became a major headache.

Rossel’s push climaxed with the proclamation of a so-called “Urals Republic,” a project that threatened to pull a slice of Russia’s industrial heartland, including factories moved to the Urals for safety during World War II, beyond Moscow’s control.

Sacked by Yeltsin but later re-elected, Rossel after 2000 had to contend with the new reality of Putin’s Russia as the charismatic leader blamed the strength of regional governors for political chaos and economic decline.

In 2004, Putin ordered political reform under which hitherto elected governors became Kremlin-nominated officials.

Election rules were changed to sweep small political parties from parliament and regional assemblies, consolidating the domination of a pro-Kremlin party, United Russia.

Political veteran Rossel was fast to feel the changing political winds and asked Putin to reconfirm him in the job in October 2005 under the new regulations.

He also joined United Russia and led its regional party list in 2007 parliamentary elections.

Other powerful governors from the Yeltsin era, including Tatarstan governor Mintimer Shaimiyev and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have maintained their positions in large part by staying close to United Russia and helping its candidates to impressive election wins.

Tuesday, however, with Rossel’s term running out on November 21, Medvedev opted to replace him with a younger and less independent figure, former deputy transport minister Alexander Misharin.

The Sverdlovsk regional assembly needs to approve Misharin, a 50-year-old career railway engineer, but as the assembly is dominated by the United Russia, confirmation is not in doubt.

Editing by Sonya Hepinstall