There are a lot of unanswered questions in the corruption case involving Kirov governor Nikita Belykh, and that has many speculating about political intrigues involving the Kremlin.

Feb. 3, 2011 photo: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, left, speaks with Nikita Belykh, Kirov region governor. Photo: AP

For a different take, read: "Another corruption scandal is a blow to Russian liberals"

The arrest of Kirov governor Nikita Belykh on a bribe-taking charge came as a surprise to his supporters and opponents alike, raising questions of whether this was purely a corruption case. Many have speculated that the arrest of Belykh could be a form of political maneuvering approved by the Kremlin, in which a liberal, outspoken governor was removed on corruption charges for political purposes.

Of course, Belykh was not the first regional leader to be arrested on corruption charges. Prior to this, Sakhalin governor Aleksandr Khoroshavin (March 2015) and the head of the Komi Republic Vyacheslav Gaizer (September 2015) were also arrested and then prosecuted.

Many suspected that Belykh had not been a favorite with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Still, the press release by the Investigative Committee about the Kirov governor being caught red-handed on June 24 as he was receiving a huge bribe came like a bolt from the blue.

Importantly, Belykh had been a kind of “rare bird” — the last, and essentially the only liberal there had been for the past 15 years among the governor corps, where the mass of “United Russians” [members of the United Russia party] had been only scarcely interspersed with representatives of other parties: Vadim Potomskiy (Communist Party, Orel region), Alexey Ostrovskiy (Liberal Democratic Party, Smolensk region), Konstantin Ilkovskiy (A Just Russia, Zabaikalsky Krai). As for Belykh, he was the leader of a non-parliamentary party, The Union of Right Forces, from 2005 to 2008.

Unlike many former United Russia figures such as the former chairman of the Moscow Duma Vladimir Platonov, or senator Yelena Mizulina, Belykh had never renounced liberalism and had been considered as one of their own by many members of the non-systemic right-liberal parties, such as the People’s Freedom Party (PARNAS), the party Democratic Choice, and the 5th of December Party.

Belykh found himself governor of the Kirov region in December 2009, during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency. Neither was his nomination opposed by Putin, who occupied the post of prime minister at that time. As governor, Belykh tried to carry out some reforms that, while not transforming the region from an outsider into a leader, allowed it to lose the image of one of the most depressing Russian regions.

In January 2014, Belykh’s term as governor expired, but Putin, who had returned as president, appointed him acting governor and thus, virtually supported his candidacy in the regional election in September 2014. Belykh entered the election as an independent candidate supported by the United Russia party and won by a margin of 54 percent over his nearest competitor, the Communist Sergey Mamayev.

Yet, subsequently, Putin referred to Belykh’s work in a tone that could hardly be called supportive. It was not any specific criticism though, but rather an undercurrent of discontent. Rumors of Belykh’s resignation started circulating as early as May of this year but it all ended much worse for him — in a bribe-taking charge and arrest.

Why is it then that many observers interpret Belykh’s arrest not as an episode in the struggle against corruption but as a political action undertaken by the authorities?

Firstly, it is because the struggle against corruption is very selective in Russia. If a governor is charged with bribery, hardly anyone asks, “Is he guilty or not?” Rather, everyone asks, “What did he do to displease the Kremlin?”

Secondly, it is rather confusing that Belykh, who is known for his caution, should have undertaken such an “adventure” considering that today, none of the officials even of much lower rank would take a bribe in cash, and in a public place, too. This has long been done through offshore entities and go-betweens.

Thirdly, Belykh allegedly received kickbacks from two companies that are known exclusively for their insolvency. Thus, a bribe of 400,000 euros (approximately $500,000) as outlined in the Investigative Committee report, would be absolutely unmanageable for them.

Fourthly, it is suspicious that the traces of luminescent paint from the banknotes were found on Belykh’s palms and not on his fingers. The governor’s lawyers explain very convincingly that Belykh could have just shaken the hand of the person who brought the money.

There are many other questions like that. Taken together, they create an impression that what we have here is not a real investigation but rather, an awkwardly staged setup.

Without doubt, the money was actually brought and taken — Belykh himself does not deny that. He denies only that it was a bribe; according to him, the money was meant for the needs of the city of Kirov. Of course, it sounds like a typical excuse, but Belykh’s words deserve to be listened to — he is essentially trying to say that if it was a bribe, it was not a bribe to him personally.

There is abundant evidence that the Russian governors resort actively in their political activity to an instrument known as the “black cashbox.” The head of each region is virtually obliged to have at hand a certain sum of cash (preferably, in foreign currency) in order to be able to carry out without delay one or another commission from above. This includes bribing certain persons who must be silenced or somehow removed from elections.

Of course, there are governors whose orders will be fulfilled immediately, without any money involved — Chechnya’s leader Ramzan Kadyrov is such a leader. But this is rather an exception, not the rule. Most governors lack such a wide power and have to “negotiate” on every issue. As a rule, the funds for the “black cashboxes” are collected from local business leaders, as there is no one else to collect it from.

Most probably, Belykh was no exception and had to play by the rules set by somebody else. He knew that he was violating the law but he considered that as payment for keeping the post of governor. Such a situation is quite comfortable to the current political regime as sullied governors are easier to manage.

Should the need arise, such a governor can be momentarily removed by initiating a criminal prosecution. An occasion for that can always be found. The only problem is a ban on mentioning the very existence of “black cashboxes,” which compels the Investigative Committee to operate in a way that leaves a lot of baffling questions.

So the question is not whether Belykh is guilty, but rather, why was it Belykh who was made the sacrificial lamb? It is logical to suggest the reasons for opening a criminal prosecution are rather of a political nature. In the course of the coming electoral campaign for the State Duma, the theme of the struggle against corruption will certainly be played a lot, with the main blow being aimed at United Russia, which has long been called “a party of crooks and thieves” (using the phrase coined by Alexey Navalny).

The arrests of the United Russia governors Khoroshavin and Gaizer, while demonstrating the Kremlin’s resolution to fight corruption, supply the opponents of United Russia with additional arguments. This is why the attempt to counterbalance the arrests of the “United Russians” by putting into custody representatives of other political forces seems quite logical.

For that reason, it is not impossible that the case of Belykh is just the beginning, and new arrests will follow. It is true that there are very few representatives of other parties among the governor corps — only one each from the Communist Party and the Liberal Democratic Party, with the representative of A Just Russia having resigned in February. But can it be that they were appointed to those posts for the sole purpose of making a show of arresting them on corruption charges during the electoral campaign?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.