Belykh's Destitute Island

On Jan. 15, Nikita Belykh was inaugurated as the governor of the Kirov region. The ceremony, which was held at Kirov's main theater, had the trappings of a drab Soviet obkom meeting, although it also offered some new post-Soviet attributes, such as the blessing by two Russian Orthodox metropolitans. To add a little extra dazzle to the ceremony, a Cossack general from the Urals regiment presented Belykh with a traditional Cossack fur hat and saber.

This was the first time in years that an outspoken member of the opposition was installed as governor. Belykh emphasized the values of democracy and freedom in his inaugural address, quoting President Dmitry Medvedev's phrase that "freedom is better than non-freedom."

Will Belykh be able to create a Kirov-based "island of freedom" in Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's sea of "power vertical"? Working to his advantage is his passion for change, as well as the cart blanche the Kremlin has apparently given him to form his own team. In another positive sign, Belykh was not required to join United Russia as a condition for his appointment.

On the other hand, Belykh faces serious systemic hurdles that he may not be able to overcome. The Kirov region is one of the most economically depressed in Russia. About 40 percent of the region's budget is financed by Moscow, automatically making the governor highly dependent on the president and his administration.

With a weak economy and a low standard of living -- ranking 63rd out of 83 regions -- it will be a daunting task to make the region financially self-sufficient. The problem of unemployment is among the worst in the country, while salaries are typically less than half of the national average. Moscow businesses have no great desire to invest in the economically depressed region. In fact, Expert magazine places Kirov in 71st place for investment among all of Russia's regions.

Kirov is at the top of the country's ranking for per capita alcohol consumption, and there is a long-standing problem with providing citizens regular gas and water services.

Moreover, the region's environment is contaminated by chemical weapons destruction sites. Wage arrears increased fivefold in 2008. The agricultural sector is in shambles, and industrial output fell twice as fast as it did in the country overall at the end of 2008. Belykh has already warned of the need for budget cuts in the face of decreased tax income.

To make matters worse, Kirov has for many years been divvied up among entrenched local clans. Monopolies control many local markets. For example, authorities have blocked national chains from operating in the region in order to protect smaller local enterprises that have ties to regional leaders. At the same time, most members of the regional and city assemblies come from the local business elite. Under such conditions, it will not be easy for Belykh to find a common language with the Kirov city mayor, who is not elected by a popular vote but is chosen by the local parliament.

It will also be difficult to strike a political balance between Belykh's new team and local officials and bureaucrats, who have been very guarded in receiving their new chief. The previous governor was unable to come up with a clear strategy for developing the region, leaving his successor with the task of starting that job almost from scratch.

Kirov has an extremely weak civil society and only nominal political parties, with almost no democrats among them. For example, the Union of Right Forces -- with Belykh himself heading the party ticket -- received less than 1 percent of the vote. The governor will have a hard time finding public support or any organized group of backers.

Thus, Belykh has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly. If he is unable to carry out his ambitious program, Belykh will just be another faceless governor toeing the Kremlin line.

When Belykh accepted Medvedev's nomination to become governor, he said he had left politics and considered the new assignment to be an exclusively economic challenge. In the end, however, Belykh's success will depend not so much on his own management skills as it does on whether Moscow will be able to pull the entire country out of the economic crisis.


Vladimir Ryzhkov, a State Duma deputy from 1993 to 2007, hosts a political talk show on Ekho Moskvy.