The case of Kirov governor Nikita Belykh, implicated in a high-profile corruption scandal, will likely affect the image of Russian liberals on the eve of parliamentary elections in Russia.


Kirov Region Governor Nikita Belykh during the hearings in Moscow's Basmanny Court. Photo: RIA Novosti

Kirov governor Nikita Belykh, a politician with liberal views, was recently arrested for taking a bribe. The scandal has many experts questioning the future of Russia’s liberals, especially ahead of this September’s parliamentary elections, when Russians will go to the polls to cast their votes for deputies of the State Duma, the lower chamber of the Russian parliament.

What stood out most was the size of the bribe – a hefty 400,000 euros (approximately half a million dollars). Following the arrest, a video and photos were released showing bundles of money. The most curious thing here is the timing of this arrest – just months before the elections to the State Duma. Belykh himself was not going to be running in these elections, but he was a shining representative of the liberal wing. Now the reputation of its followers has been badly tarnished.

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The meeting with the governor and the transfer of the money took place on June 24 in downtown Moscow, in an expensive restaurant located in a shopping center. The money that was passed to the official carried invisible labels that glow under ultraviolet light. This is the standard practice of investigators to track money transactions involved in a criminal case. 

Belykh’s lawyers have already announced that the probe against the governor was not conducted in accordance with standard procedures. The case against an elected official should have been initiated by the head of the Investigative Committee, and not a senior investigator.

“The head of a common village council can be held criminally liable only under special circumstances, and the case against the governor of the region, for which 400,000 people voted, was launched by a mere senior investigator,” says lawyer Vadim Prokhorov.

Vladimir Markin, the official representative of the Investigative Committee, says that there were no violations. According to the current classification of crimes, the governor was charged under Part 6 of Article 290 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation for accepting a large-scale bribe. If the investigation proves that the official had indeed committed a crime, then the head of the Kirov Oblast might face anywhere from eight to 15 years in prison.

In an interview with the radio station Vesti FM, he said that no other case caused so such outcry, even though many high-ranking officials have been arrested before this, including the former head of the Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gayzer and the ex-governor of Sakhalin Oblast Alexander Khoroshavin. “Many people have been arrested before, people with no connections to opposition parties. But for some reason, there was no such outcry back then. Everything was fine,” said Markin.

A blow to Russian liberals

Experts are more concerned not so much with the case itself and its details, but the timing – on the eve of elections to the State Duma. Alexey Mukhin, general director of the Center for Political Information, argues that these events around Belykh will have a strong de-motivating effect on the liberal opposition.

“He was considered an important personality, and the only politician holding high public office as a governor, who openly expressed liberal views,” said the expert. “Under such circumstances, his arrest has dealt a serious blow to the reputation of the liberal community. This has been proven by the defensive reaction of the liberals, which they have demonstrated recently. At the same time, no one is denying that Belykh should be accountable for his actions.”

During the next elections, the liberals will have to answer for this event. The liberal Yabloko Party is likely to suffer the most from this latest scandal.

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“Even though the party has distanced itself from the incident, public opinion has nevertheless turned against the liberals. And Yabloko has assumed a heavy burden on itself – to represent the interests of this particular political wing in the upcoming parliamentary campaign,” said Mukhin. “Nothing can be done about this now. Things have occurred, and one can only wait for the consequences.”

The problem is that Russians do not trust liberals, or their proposed reforms. After the numerous economic shocks in the 1990s, changes and reforms are seen as being connected to economic losses, and these are not the most joyful of memories. In addition, recent trials involving liberals, and especially of anti-corruption campaigner Alexey Navalny, the well-known opposition leader and adviser to Belykh, do not make the liberal politicians any more popular and trustworthy.

At the same time, Pavel Salin, political expert and director of the Center for Political Studies at the University of Finance, believes that the Belykh case will not have an impact on the upcoming elections campaign, but it will become one of the compelling arguments when choosing the government’s future agenda.

“Belykh, as a federal politician, has already left the political arena. In the first year of his governorship, he still glowed, and then he was dragged down in local affairs,” he explains.

Future targets

Salin believes that this scandal, in terms of voting, will have no impact, but it will spoil the image of liberals among the population. For example, now there is a clear understanding in the country, that all liberals are not clean when it comes to corruption. And in the long term, this is a very important point for the Russian political elite.

“Now there is a battle for the choice of the course, as a whole, which Russian President Vladimir Putin will follow on the path towards his next presidential term, and the liberals have become very active. Now there is an ongoing struggle for influence over the content of the future agenda of the government – for the financial flows,” said the expert. 

It cannot be ruled out that the next targets will become the head of Rosnano and former liberal politician Anatoly Chubais, or even former minister Alexey Kudrin.

“Rosnano may soon be in trouble, as an official audit of that company has already been announced. The campaign against the liberals will become more active, but this will happen only after the Duma elections. The main targets are Chubais and Kudrin, but these are hard nuts to crack,” says the expert. “This involves the creation of mass sentiment, which will be used to formulate the future course.”