The arrest of Nikita Belykh, the governor of Russia’s Kirov Region, after he was caught in a sting accepting an alleged 400,000 euro bribe, is not perhaps the sort of event that attracts world attention. After all the fact there is corruption in Russia is hardly news.
Belykh is not however a run-of-the-mill governor. Unlike all of Russia’s other governors his background is firmly in Russian liberal politics and he has in the past enjoyed close links with what is sometimes called Russia’s “non-system” opposition. This consists of the individuals and groups who agitate outside Russia’s parliamentary system and who – almost to a man and woman – consider Putin an evil dictator who they want overthrown.
In fairness to Belykh he has been marginally more effective electorally than most of the other members of the liberal “non-system” opposition. For a time in the mid-2000s he was the leader of the ultra-liberal Union of Rightist Forces where he became close to Boris Nemtsov. A coalition he formed in 2005 with Grigory Yavlinsky’s Yabloko party (Russia’s oldest and biggest liberal party) won 11% of the vote in the Moscow city elections of 2005, gaining a presence in the Moscow City Duma. In 2006 his party did even better in local elections in Belykh’s home region of Perm where it won 16% of the vote. However under Belykh’s leadership the Union of Rightist Forces – like all other Russian “non-system” liberal parties and groups – never made a significant impact on national politics.
Belykh became governor of Russia’s Kirov Region in December 2008, when he was unexpectedly appointed to the post by Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev who was at the time trying to reach out to Russia’s liberal and “non-system” opposition. Belykh was roundly denounced for accepting the post by some of his former liberal comrades – including Boris Nemtsov – but he has remained in that post ever since, even winning re-election in regional elections where he stood as the incumbent.
Belykh did however become involved in a national controversy in 2013 when one of his assistants – the liberal “non-system” politician Alexey Navalny – was prosecuted on corruption charges. I undertook a detailed study of the case and concluded that Navalny would undoubtedly have been found guilty on a similar charge on the same facts had the case happened in England, a view I still hold though the European Court of Human Rights in what struck me as a perfunctory and obviously politicised judgment has recently said otherwise (in passing I note that the Russian authorities have as yet taken no step to reverse their verdict against Navalny, which remains in effect).
As part of that study I took a detailed look at Belykh’s conduct as governor and commented on
“…….the chaotic state of the administration of the Kirov Region on Belykh’s watch with Votnikov in prison, Arzamatsev on the run and Opalev with a four year suspended sentence to add to the case against Navalny and Ofitserov…..”
I also said that much of the blame for the complex of facts that led to the case against Navalny ultimately had to be laid at Belykh’s door
“If Navalny behaved like a loose cannon and if subsequent events bear a passing resemblance to a tale from Gogol much of the blame rests with Belykh for his failure to supervise Navalny and his other subordinates properly.”
In passing, a report on RT’s website suggests that there might be some connection between the Navalny case and the case that is now being brought against Belykh
“According to investigators, Belykh was getting the money for his actions in favor of the bribe-giver, who controlled two companies – the Novovyatsky Ski Plant and Forestry Managing Company. The latter entity is associated with Russian opposition figure Aleksey Navalny. Among its co-founding companies in 2010 was the Kirovles (Kirov Forest), which was later involved in the criminal case against Navalny.”
The events involving KirovLes in which Navalny was involved took place in 2009. It is difficult to see what connection Navalny could have to a company – the Forestry Managing Company – which was set up by KirovLes after he had already left the Kirov Region. Russia’s Investigative Committee, which is bringing the case against Belykh, says Navalny is not involved and given that relations between Belykh and Navalny have cooled it seems unlikely that he is.
The case against Belykh has not been proved and until it is he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. The evidence against him does however appear strong. The Investigative Committee claim to have caught him in the act, accepting the money in cash in a Moscow bar. Apparently the bank notes had been smeared with a special paint traces of which were found on Belykh’s hands. Belykh however denies the charge. Apparently he admits handling and receiving the money but claims it was not intended for him but was an investment for the Kirov Region. Suffice to say that if that is true, then the fact Belykh was happy to receive such a large sum of money on behalf of the Kirov Region in person in cash in a Moscow bar is a sign of just how incompetent and chaotic his administration of the Kirov Region is.
Inevitably there are already claims that the arrest and prosecution of Russia’s only liberal governor is politically motivated – supposedly as a tightening up exercise in light of the forthcoming parliamentary elections. The Russian authorities of course deny this, and the reasons for supposing a political motive are not obvious. Belykh is hardly a popular figure and as governor of the remote and underpopulated Kirov Region he is hardly a threat to the authorities in Moscow. If he was they would have presumably dismissed him before now. As it happens Belykh is the third Russian regional governor to be arrested on corruption charges this year, which suggests that he has simply fallen foul of an ongoing anti-corruption campaign.
The real mystery about Belykh is how he was able to remain governor of the Kirov Region for so long. The mere fact that he is a liberal guaranteed him glowing reports in the Western media, such as this one from Newsweek. However the chaotic and corrupt nature of his administration became all too apparent in the Navalny case. Significantly, of the two activist friends named by Newsweek whom Belykh brought with him to the Kirov Region, one – Arzamatsev – was as of the time of Navalny’s trial on the run from the police, and the other – Maria Gaidar – after a turbulent career in the Kirov Region, has joined Mikhail Saakashvili’s team of advisers in Odessa and applied for and obtained Ukrainian citizenship.
Belykh’s political longevity notwithstanding the scandals of his administration and his all-too obvious administrative incompetence is an indication of how Russian liberals – far from being the persecuted minority they claim to be – in reality enjoy extraordinary privileges in a country where they are widely disliked. His arrest however suggests that his incompetence and/or corruption have finally caught up with him.