After a decade in which Russia’s regional governors were effectively appointed by its president, voters in some regions went to the polls on 14 September for the first time in the last decade to elect their regional head. Elections for governors were abolished in 2004 after the Beslan terrorist attack, and were only reinstated in 2012 after the mass protests of 2011-2012. In the Kirov Region, Nikita Belykh was running for office. He is the former leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces, now merged with other rightist parties to form Right Cause.
At first a liberal
In 2008, Nikita Belykh, a liberal often seen at opposition rallies, and the leader of the opposition Union of Right Forces, unexpectedly dissolved his party and accepted new president Dmitry Medvedev’s invitation to become governor of the Kirov Region, in the eastern part of European Russia. This announcement was a shock for many of his former associates, with Maria Gaidar, his soulmate in the fight against the ‘bloody regime,’ accusing him of supping with the devil. I remember watching an animated Belykh on the rostrum of the region’s Legislative Assembly building, addressing its silent members: ‘My name is Nikita Belykh. I am 33, and I have three sons. So I care deeply about the future of our country and this region…’ The assembly members confirmed his appointment, of course, but they weren’t voting with their hearts. They saw this liberal governor as a Kremlin shoo-in that had to be officially endorsed, but should be got rid of as soon as possible.
Nikita Belykh of 'Right Cause' was at one time viewed as a new breed of Russian politician. via author.
The liberal intelligentsia, on the other hand, were enthusiastic about Belykh’s appointment – all, that is, with the exception of veteran liberal oppositionist Valeria Novodvorskaya, who stated prophetically that, ‘Nikita Belykh will not be the people’s choice – he’s a Kremlin stooge!’ But nobody listened.
Soon there was a trail of civil rights activists and bloggers, opposition leaders, Western journalists, and diplomats, all making their pilgrimages to the capital of the Vyatlag, once one of the largest ‘islands’ of the infamous Gulag Archipelago. Almost every week saw pickets and rallies held by a variety of political and social movements, which no one banned. The police just stood around with bewildered smiles on their faces. The only event that was dispersed was a gay parade, when riot squads chased participants all round the city, and arrested some, but let them go after the civil rights people intervened on their behalf.
I met Nikita Belykh for the first time a couple of months after his inauguration in 2008, and we sat at a large table in his office, drank tea and chatted about democracy and economics.
‘I haven’t changed my right-liberal views and won’t change them,’ Belykh assured me. ‘The fact that I’m now part of the government doesn’t necessarily mean I’m being absorbed into the power vertical. I am not a member of the ruling party and don’t intend to be. I’m going to concentrate on the economy and business development. As Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince said, “When you get up in the morning you must tidy up your planet.” Perhaps the thing that is different about our society today is that governors are no longer political figures!’
‘But how,’ I asked, ‘can you be a governor and not be involved in politics?’ And I quoted a famous statement by another French writer: “If you don’t involve yourself in politics, politics will involve itself in you.”’ In the end we agreed to disagree, but our dispute was resolved by events. Nikita Belykh got involved in his region’s economy; he ‘tidied up his planet.’
Belykh built hospitals, schools, swimming pools, indoor ice rinks and motorways. He laid new hard surfaced paths along the banks of the river Vyatka in Kirov the regional capital, turned central Spasskaya Street into a pedestrianised zone, and rebuilt the city’s Herzen Library, creating a modern centre of learning. Free Wi-Fi appeared in Kirov’s parks and squares, and free training sessions at its sports centres. Painting by Vladimir Usatov portraying Bekykh with former president Dmitry Medvedev. via author
Belykh built hospitals, schools, swimming pools, indoor ice rinks and motorways.
In the five years from 2008 that Nikita Belykh was governor, 487,100 square metres of housing and 25 sports facilities were built in the Kirov Region; and 608 healthcare facilities, 615km of motorway, six bridges, five pedestrian subways, and 275 livestock farms were renovated and repaired. 56.8 billion roubles worth of investment flowed into the area.
Nikita Belykh also introduced numerous Sunday markets and traditional craft fairs where people could buy or sell goods. He toured his region tirelessly, visiting its remotest spots, where he enjoyed chatting to local villagers. As Tolstoy said, ‘If you don’t know what to do, ask a peasant!’ I don’t know whether Belykh asked a villager or decided for himself that he was doing the right thing: that it was better to get on with something useful than to waste time on hopeless political protest.
In 2013, Kirov was the setting for the highest profile trial in recent Russian history. At its centre was Belykh’s former adviser and opposition mate Aleksei Navalny, who in 2009 was charged by Governor Belykh with reorganising the state- owned Kirovles timber company. The company was supposed to bring money into state coffers, but constantly ran at a loss. Its managers were used to working all kinds of scams: felling forests as and when they liked without being accountable to anyone, and pocketing the profits. Anyone who dared look into these methods would be chopped down like a tree; and Kirovles CEO Vyacheslav Opalev would be the chief prosecution witness at Navalny’s trial.
In 2013, Kirov was the setting for the highest profile trial in recent Russian history.
Navalny, a prominent opposition figure and remorseless enemy of corruption, was charged, along with his friend, businessman Pyotr Ofitserov, with stealing 10,000 cubic metres of timber; and Belykh was called as a witness. Most independent experts, both inside and outside Russia, described the embezzlement charges as ‘politically motivated.’ The courtroom in Kirov saw one of Russia’s dirtiest criminal trials, comparable in its absurdity with Stalin-era show trials of ‘enemies of the people;’ and no one could stop it. Nor, indeed, did anyone even try. In those ‘dark days,’ Nikita Belykh was practically unavailable for comment, his press secretary’s phone wasn’t answered; and the governor threw himself into lengthy trips away – pressing business matters and other ploys to keep busy. While Belykh was busy with the economy, his friend was almost put behind bars for five years for ‘politics.’ Navalny was saved from prison by a miracle: he was standing for election as mayor of Moscow and the authorities needed him as a candidate. He was released in the courtroom, having received a five year suspended sentence.
While Belykh was busy with the economy, his friend was almost put behind bars for five years for ‘politics.’
Nikita Belykh also got five years, but his five years were gubernatorial; on 14 September 2014, with support from United Russia, the ruling party, he won the election for governor in Kirov Region with 70% of the vote; his closest competitor, Sergei Mamayev, from the Communist Party, managed to attract only 16% of the votes. The turnout was low, only 36% of the population wanted to go out and vote on a Sunday.
Pensioner Ilya Pervakov claims he was pressured to vote for Belykh. (c) Author‘I actually wanted to vote for Belykh, but they still forced me!’ Ilya Pervakov, a decorated ‘veteran of labour’ says in a voice full of sincere indignation. Pervakov is 86, worked in a collective farm for 43 years, and has seen a lot in his life, but has never seen the likes of this before.
‘The other day they came into the Veteran’s Council and said to me, “Well then, friends. Everyone needs to vote for Belykh. There’s been a decision made” Who decided? Why this pressure on the people? Many veterans got up and left. I decided to go and vote for the Communist candidate!’
Local assembly deputy for the settlement of Lebyazhye, Natalia Makarova, an entrepreneur, also wanted to give her signature to the Communist candidate, but wasn’t allowed. ‘A civil servant from the Lebyazhye local administration came to me. Forgive me if I won’t give their name, I have to live here!’ Natalia explained over the phone. ‘They said that if I didn’t sign ‘for Belykh’ the area would be stripped of funding, and everything would be awful.’
According to Russian electoral law, every candidate for governor must collect signatures in support of their candidacy, (ranging from 5-10% of municipal deputies depending on the region). In Kirov Region, that is 224 signatures.
The candidate from A Just Russia, Aleksandr Tarnavsky, was forced to quit the gubernatorial race in the first round, when he could not get enough signatures from municipal deputies.
‘According to our information, Nikita Belykh gathered 900 signatures instead of the legal maximum of 235,’ Tarnavsky explained over the phone, ‘and left the other candidates with none. According to a constitutional court ruling this constitutes “an abuse of office” and demands the withdrawal of the candidate from elections. We wrote about this in an appeal to the courts to annul Belykh’s registration. The Kirov Regional Court and the High Court of the Russian Federation both refused to uphold the complaint. That’s how we ended up in a situation where a person called upon to uphold the law in Kirov Region ends up breaking them himself.’
Many wanted to tell about Nikita Belykh’s electoral violations. But in recent times such a thing has become difficult. The only independent popular newspaper in Kirov Region, Vyatsky Nablyudatel, was sold to businessmen under Belykh’s control, and lost simultaneously both its independence and popularity. The Kirov branch of the independent Ekho Moskvy radio station spoke about Belykh’s campaign almost exclusively in complimentary tones. Other media operate and write in a harsh environment of censorship and commercial reckoning. Belykh himself became far less communicative with friends on LiveJournal and Twitter; and his own commentary there more and resembles that of a Putin apparatchik.
Other media operate and write in a harsh environment of censorship and commercial reckoning.
However, I was lucky. Nikita Belykh cast his vote in the polling station nearest to my house. Under the flash of the cameras, Nikita Belykh dropped his ballot into the transparent box; and I took advantage of the moment.
Nikita Belykh casts his vote. (c) Author
‘Nikita Yuryevich, opponents accuse you of using “administrative resources.” They maintain that through government workers of the local administration you have put pressure on deputies of the local authorities, demanding they support you. Can you comment?’
‘You know, I’ve been in a lot of elections and every time I hear from my “opponents” – “This is a dirty election! The most dirty election in history,”’ answered Nikita Belykh quietly, ‘But then there’s a new election and it turns out it was even “dirtier” than the previous ones. As for concrete accusations, they were sent to the court, and the court didn’t uphold the suit. The Kirov Region elections are going to be honest. And on that note, I’d like to call on all residents of Kirov Region to come to the polling station and fulfill their civic duty.’
I returned to the polling station in deep thought, trying to answer a troubling personal question: should I vote for Nikita Belykh or not? But there was no other choice. I couldn’t vote for the Communist candidate. I remembered the Soviet Union too well. I stood in a scarlet tie in the pioneers and pledged myself to an idea no one around me had believed for a long time. On TV they showed the General Secretary being granted the Order of Lenin, while the shelves in the shops remained empty. The biggest treat for me was condensed milk, which mum bought as part of the holiday rations given at New Year. I didn’t see it at other times of the year. Just like I couldn’t see any future for myself in the Soviet Union. Is there a future now? I thought carefully; and crossed out all the candidates on the ballot. The counting machine gobbled up my protest with pleasure.