Northern Russians Fear a Putin Power-Grab In a remote region of Russia's Arctic Far North, residents say they're the latest victims of President Putin's drive to reshape his county into a global power. Last month, authorities jailed the region's governor, Alexei Barinov, on charges of fraud and embezzlement. But citizens say the move was part of a plan.
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Northern Russians Fear a Putin Power-Grab

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Northern Russians Fear a Putin Power-Grab

Northern Russians Fear a Putin Power-Grab

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

People in a remote region of the Russian arctic say they're the latest victims of President Vladimir Putin's drive to reshape his country into a global power. They say the Kremlin has thrown the region's governor in jail as part of an effort to take control of its oil and gas.

NPR's Gregory Feifer traveled to Russia's far north and he filed this report.

GREGORY FEIFER: The Nenets autonomous region lies far above the Arctic Circle and for about nine months of the year, it's blanketed in snow. During the brief summer, a thin layer of grounds above the permafrost melts, exposing a vast flat expanse of marshy sand and scrub and unleashing vicious swarms of mosquitoes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT IN WATER)

FEIFER: The regional capital Naryan-Mar, a dusty outpost of simple two-story buildings, stands on the Pechora River. There is no permanent road connecting the town to the rest of Russia. It's here that the Kremlin is waging the latest battle in its bid to make Russia an international energy superpower.

But the people of Naryan-Mar are pushing back. Earlier this month, about 200 locals assembled in the main square to protest the arrest of their governor. Authorities jailed Alexei Barinov last month on charges of fraud and embezzlement in a previous job.

NIKOLAI FOMIN: (Speaking in foreign language)

Addressing the crowd, regional legislator Nikolai Fomin said the Kremlin's move was part of a carefully planned scheme to dismantle the local government and take control over the region's key resource. Fomin says the Kremlin targeted the Nenets region because it had some of Russia's biggest untapped oil and gas reserves, which are still just being explored.

FOMIN: (Through translator) A signal has been sent to all governors using our example, that if you don't play by the rules we invented, the same fate awaits you.

FEIFER: Barinov's arrest came after a rare show of defiance to the Kremlin by the region's local legislators. The governor refused to keep the representatives in line and the next day found himself the target of a criminal case. He dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

ALEXEI BARINOV: (Through translator) People who are doing this have interests in the region that don't correspond to the interests of the region or the government. So they began to dig for dirt on me.

FEIFER: Barinov was arrested the following day, then fired. He's now awaiting trial. Nenets residents were incensed. They praised Barinov for standing up for them. He opposed Moscow's plan to merge Nenets with the much poorer neighboring region Arkhangelsk. They say the tough former oil men also forced oil companies in the region to pay taxes and finance projects such as building schools and libraries.

FEIFER: Retired kindergarten teacher Liudmilla Barabanova believes the Kremlin doesn't want locals to benefit from their region's oil well.

LIUMILLA BARABANOVA: (Through translator) I think it's an outrage. How can we live on this land where oil is being pumped out and get nothing? The people of Nenets should benefit from it.

FEIFER: Analysts say Barinov's main mistake was running afoul of the burgeoning state Rosneft oil company, which is at the center at the Kremlin's plan to consolidate the country's energy industry. Rosneft recently began expanding operations in Nenets, and Barinov had insisted the company pay more than $30 million it owes in back taxes.

Local administrator, Boris Dulniev, is a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party. He says rumors circulated that the Kremlin would try to smear Barinov.

BORIS DULNIEV: (Through translator) But absolutely no one expected that it would be done openly, so crudely, so forcefully and so completely.

FEIFER: Many here compare Barinov's arrest to that of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, former head of the Yukos oil company, who many believe was sentenced to eight years in jail for his opposition to Putin. But most Nenets residents appear resigned to their region's fate as they await the trial of their governor. Regional legislator Fomin says they know the Kremlin is counting on their isolation to help carry out what he calls its corporate take over.

FOMIN: (Speaking foreign language)

FEIFER: We're located at the end of the earth, he said. So a few people go out and yell somewhere on the tundra. Will anyone really hear us?

Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Naryan-Mar in the Russian far north.

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