From Kremlin Critic to Governor

MTBelykh being detained by riot police before the start of a Dissenters' March over the presidential vote on March 3.
Exactly a year ago, then-President Vladimir Putin warned that the liberal opposition was trying to return to the power it enjoyed in the 1990s by staging street protests and enriching themselves, while bringing the country to its knees.

Now former Union of Right Forces head Nikita Belykh, one of the leaders of the liberal opposition who was arrested at a Dissenters' March this spring, will likely become governor of the Kirov region after President Dmitry Medvedev nominated him for the post Monday.

What is going on?

Belykh said he accepted the nomination because the position was "very interesting from a professional point of view."

"I understand how to do it, and it is interesting because it is a big challenge," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

Belykh, 33, who served as deputy governor of the Perm region in 2004 and 2005, said that being part of the Kremlin's so-called power vertical did not contradict his principles as a liberal-minded reformer.

"I have not said that people should not cooperate with the powers that be," he said.

He said governors are not political figures in modern Russia, especially during an economic crisis.

Three months ago, Belykh stepped down as the leader of the Union of Right Forces, or SPS, after railing against the Kremlin for three years in a drive that culminated during the State Duma campaign last year. The party won no seats and was disbanded several weeks ago.

SPS has merged with the tiny Democratic Party and the Civil Force party to create the Kremlin-backed Right Cause, a nonopposition liberal party.

Several opposition figures, including former SPS activist Maria Gaidar, have accused Belykh of striking a deal with the Kremlin to destroy SPS. But Belykh has refused to join Right Cause.

"I was against it because it was just an imitation of the opposition and not real opposition," he said Tuesday.

Belykh praised liberal-minded officials who work in the government, naming among them Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, Central Bank chief Sergei Ignatyev and Federal Anti-monopoly Service head Igor Artemyev.

"I think that it is right and useful that there are people who think like us in the structures of power," he said.

Belykh was among more than 50 people briefly detained by riot police before the start of a Dissenters' March on March 3. The rally, which was unsanctioned by Moscow authorities, was called by the opposition to denounce the presidential election, which had been held a day earlier.

Belykh said Medvedev had offered him the job Monday. Several weeks before receiving the offer, he spoke with Medvedev's first deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief strategist for domestic policy.

"I met with Surkov three weeks ago, but we didn't speak about a specific region. We only discussed my cooperation with the authorities within the executive power," Belykh said. "I said I was ready, and our contacts stopped with that."

Asked whether he would allow the opposition to march in Kirov, Belykh said, "If they act according to the law and according to our law, people have the right to assemble."

It was not clear Tuesday when Kirov lawmakers would confirm Belykh to the post. The term of the incumbent, Nikolai Shaklein, expires in mid-January. The next session of the regional parliament is scheduled for Dec. 18.

Shaklein, elected in 2004 before then-President Vladimir Putin ditched gubernatorial elections, is one of the country's least-popular governors. The Kremlin might have another reason to see him go: United Russia won only 28.5 percent of the vote in the regional parliament's last elections, in 2006 — one of the party's poorest results nationally.

SPS co-founder Boris Nemtsov, who with other opposition activists is creating a new opposition group called Solidarity, said Tuesday that he had known for some time that Belykh was talking to the Kremlin about a job.

"We agreed that he had to decide before Solidarity's congress, and he did," he said.

Solidarity will hold its founding congress on Saturday. Former chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov are part of Solidarity.

Nemtsov said Belykh would share blame with those in power by becoming part of the power, including corruption, raiders' attacks on companies, aggressive domestic and foreign policies, voting falsification and censorship. "In short, the entire power vertical is responsible for Putin's actions," Nemtsov said.

He said Belykh had made an ethical mistake accepting the nomination because he would be working for a Kremlin "that shot at Beslan's children … and turned a blind eye when Anna Politkovskaya was killed."

Nemtsov said Belykh was following in the footsteps of SPS co-founder Anatoly Chubais, head of the State Nanotechnology Corporation, and Leonid Gozman, a former SPS leader who now is a co-head of Right Cause.

"From a political point of view, we now belong to two different camps, but our personal relationship will remain unchanged," Nemtsov added.

Kasyanov, reached Tuesday through his secretary, declined to comment.

Political analysts were divided over the Kremlin's motivation in selecting Belykh as governor. But they agreed that the decision was not a reward for bringing down SPS, which they said posed no threat to the Kremlin.

"Belykh proved to be an apt administrator in Perm, and at the same time he did not turn into a liberal icon or a liberal ideologist as the head of SPS," said Sergei Mikheyev, an analyst with the Center for Political Technologies.

As such, Medvedev might view Belykh's stint at SPS as a career move in line with the requirements of the presidential cadre reserve, which welcomes both managerial and political experience, Mikheyev said.

With the nomination, the Kremlin is sending a signal to liberal-minded Russians that it does not want to marginalize them but might incorporate them in politics, said Dmitry Badovsky, a political scientist at Moscow State University and a member of the Public Chamber.

Belykh, however, may turn into a "poison pill" for liberals. If he fails in Kirov, which has one of Russia's least-developed regional economies, the Kremlin might use it against the liberals, saying their approaches are of no use in real life, said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Center for Political Information.