The Day of the Russian Jackals

In another installment of its “Kremlin Rules” series the New York Times reports on the sellout by former “opposition” politician Nikita Belykh. As always, the Times has translated the article into Russian and posted it on a Live Journal blog, collected comments and translated them back into English.  One commenter stated:  “Can there be two opinions on this? Belykh sold himself completely, but isn’t he a human being? The liberals have absolutely no chance for success.”  Another wrote: “Why do you think Belykh surrendered after years of tough criticism of the Kremlin? He was persecuted by the bloody K.G.B. Just visit the Lubyanka basements, listen to the growl of the ungreased stone crusher, and you won’t have these questions any more.”

Vladimir V. Putin was sitting behind his desk. Before him was a prominent opposition leader named Nikita Y. Belykh, a beefy and bearded liberal with a fondness for scribbling poems on the side. In one, each stanza began with a word that he said characterized Mr. Putin’s Russia: Autocratic. One-Party. Authoritarian. Aggressive. Yet there Mr. Belykh was, ready to abandon it all.

Mr. Putin had invited Mr. Belykh to his office on Dec. 5 to make an offer. Renounce the opposition. Come work for the Kremlin. Mr. Belykh was feeling beaten down, “a sense of my own degradation,” as he explained in an interview last week. He said he was tired of being vilified in the state-controlled news media, of being hounded by the state security forces, of being arrested at demonstrations, of having his political party thwarted at every turn.

And so Mr. Belykh, 33, who represented the future of the liberal opposition, said yes. He accepted an appointment as one of the Kremlin’s regional governors, turning his back on his party allies and becoming emblematic of the opposition’s difficulties this year.

A man who had once declared, “I have no intention of doing deals with the Kremlin” was doing just that. His turnabout raised a stark question for those he left behind. If Nikita Y. Belykh cannot take it, who can?

“When you have nothing at all, when you cannot even get close in the elections, when all your paths are being cut off, then you just can’t have a political party,” Mr. Belykh said.

“A year or two ago, I still had hopes of the possibility of a certain public political life. The elections of 2007 and 2008 showed that those were just illusions.”

With Mr. Belykh’s appointment and the liberal opposition in disarray, some of its leaders have sought to band together in a new movement, called Solidarity after the Polish anti-Communist movement. It is being organized by Garry K. Kasparov, the former chess champion, and Boris Y. Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister.

The two have said they will attract a following from Russians disgruntled by the Kremlin’s handling of the financial crisis. Still, political analysts said the movement had little public support, and it has already become ensnared in disputes with other liberal factions.

“The problem that Solidarity faces is that while many of its criticisms are true, its leaders are not perceived by the vast majority of the population as representing the average person’s interests,” said Boris I. Makarenko, chairman of the Center for Political Technologies, a research organization in Moscow.

In the fall, Mr. Belykh said he would embrace Solidarity. Then the message arrived from the Kremlin.

Mr. Belykh’s pact with the Kremlin was a milestone in its lengthy campaign to all but stamp out the liberal opposition. Polls show that roughly 10 to 20 percent of Russians back the agenda of the liberals, which includes a pro-Western, free-market orientation and far less government regulation of industry and the news media.

Even so, the party that Mr. Belykh used to lead, the Union of Right Forces, received only 1 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections last year, after being subjected to intense pressure by the government. It did not even run a candidate in the presidential election this year. In October, the party disbanded.

From its remains, the Kremlin created a new party, the Right Cause. The party is intended to espouse liberal ideas and serve as an outlet for public discontent caused by the financial crisis without challenging the Kremlin’s authority.

The new party’s leaders said they had no choice but to agree to exist under the Kremlin’s umbrella. They said that these days, liberals must cooperate if they wanted to attain even modest success in Russia — meaning the ability to raise money for campaigns and garner a few seats in the national and regional legislatures.

“It’s a shame, it’s a very negative thing, but it’s reality,” said Leonid Y. Gozman, a former leader of the Union of Right Forces who leads the new party. His arm was broken by the police during a demonstration last year.

The new party points up the wide-ranging control that the Kremlin has established over the political system. It now oversees the dominant ruling party, United Russia; a populist-socialist party, called A Just Russia, that it set up to siphon votes from the Communist Party; and the Right Cause.

Mr. Belykh did not join the Right Cause, calling it an imitation of an opposition party. Still, in hindsight, his former colleagues said, the damage was done when Mr. Belykh agreed to abolish the Union of Right Forces. “People are bought here, people are easily corrupted,” said Maria E. Gaidar, a former senior official of the Union of Right Forces. “To be in the opposition is very difficult in Russia, when you don’t have support and money, and you don’t see any clear future. Nikita is quite a sensitive and romantic person, but when it comes to his career, he is very cynical and pragmatic.”

Mr. Belykh was holding court last week in the lobby of the Baltschug Kempinski Hotel in Moscow, where the coffee is $10 a cup, meeting with officials and others to prepare for his new life. He is soon to move 500 miles to the east to become governor of Kirov, an economically depressed region.

He was wearing a purple buttoned-down shirt, jeans and hiking boots. On a table was a notebook in which he composes poetry. He often sends text messages with snippets of verse to his friends’ cellphones.

He said he had been stung though not surprised that some opposition politicians had called him a traitor. He sought to explain his decision by arguing that he could do more good by working with the Kremlin. He said he would prove that someone with progressive ideas could succeed in the government.

“There should be no fighting for the sake of fighting,” he said. “There should be results, a change in the situation in the country.”

Despite all his attacks on the Kremlin in recent years, he refrained from criticizing Mr. Putin, the former president and the current prime minister, and his protégé, President Dmitri A. Medvedev. He suggested that by appointing him, they were seeking to be more inclusive.

Asked about the future of the liberal opposition, he said, “Of course, it will be difficult for them.”

Aleksei Pavlov, a Kremlin spokesman, said Mr. Belykh was appointed not because of politics but because he was considered a good manager. Mr. Pavlov said Mr. Belykh had demonstrated his skills when he served in 2004 and 2005 as a vice governor in Perm, a region near Kirov.

“This was a good argument for him to receive the job,” Mr. Pavlov said.

Governors in Russia used to be popularly elected, but Mr. Putin did away with that system beginning in 2005, seeking to centralize authority. The president now chooses governors, who are supposed to enforce political order in the regions and round up votes for the ruling party in elections.

Mr. Belykh insisted that he would not play that role. He said he had told Mr. Putin and Mr. Medvedev that he would not enter the ruling party. They agreed, but only if Mr. Belykh did not help the opposition.

“Do you understand that your work is focused on managing the region, and not on political statements on behalf of a political party?” Mr. Putin asked, according to Mr. Belykh.

Mr. Belykh’s former allies said he was being either naïve or disingenuous. They questioned what he would do if the opposition tried to conduct protests in Kirov and the security services wanted to disrupt them.

Mr. Belykh responded that he would abide by the law, saying that above all, he would be an apolitical governor. When asked whether he would vote for Mr. Putin or Mr. Medvedev in the next presidential election, Mr. Belykh, who typically talks very fast, paused and seemed to choose his words cautiously.

“Ah, tough question, yes?” he said. “I don’t see any alternative. Given the political landscape, there is nobody else.”

One response to “The Day of the Russian Jackals

  1. Wow, so many of the comments accompanying the article are mind bogglingly stupid including permission for Putin to be an autocrat, America as morally equivalent and how unworthy the Russian opposition is . How can an opposition party be viable when it’s shut out of the public square? It would be like denying the Republicans in America access to the public airwaves and then critcizing them for their ineffectiveness and failure to evolve. Not one iota of thought was given to that as the most basic problem in Russian politics.

    In my opinion Belykh should have declined on principle. He simply is buying time for Putin. He’s effectively a neutralized entity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s