The arrest on June 24th of Nikita Belykh (above), the liberal-minded governor of the Kirovsk region, was headline news on Russian state television. It even preceded the report on Vladimir Putin’s triumphal visit to China, The Economist notes:
Mr Belykh is accused of receiving a €400,000 ($445,000) bribe and faces up to 15 years in jail. He has launched a hunger strike to protest against the charges. In the best Soviet tradition, the state media have reported his guilt long before any trial. Mr Belykh claims he was set up. He is the third governor in 15 months to be arrested on corruption charges; there have been similar arrests in Komi and Sakhalin.
“This is the Kremlin’s new way of exercising control over regional elites,” says Kirill Rogov, a Russian political analyst.
Of course, Russian officials actually accept bribes in all sorts of ways, and their appetite has not been known to lessen in inverse proportion to wealth. It can be hard to convey the scale and scope of Russian corruption, but students of the country try to do so all the time, Masha Gessen writes for The New Yorker:
Many people have said that corruption is the essence, not a bug or even a feature, of the Russian system. The economist Anders Åslund, who has been writing about Russia for a quarter century, has been known to use his hands. First, he weaves his fingers together and holds his palms apart to form a triangle and says that this is how corruption works in most countries: a lot at the bottom, less at the top. Then he brings the heels of his hands together, holding his fingers apart to form a funnel, and says that this is how corruption works in Russia: “top-heavy” doesn’t begin to describe it. An American political scientist named Karen Dawisha has famously described the system as a kleptocracy, and a Hungarian author named Bálint Magyar has defined it, less famously but perhaps more accurately, as a mafia state. All of this is true. The Russian government is corruption, and corruption is the Russian government’s reason for being.
As the September election approaches, Putin’s chief strength is his personal popularity. His greatest vulnerability is that in this election he is not on the ballot, writes Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Asked to choose between him and his opponents, Russian voters have long been ready to support him. But given a chance to say how they really feel about their circumstances—and his absence from the ballot gives them that chance—they may choose unpredictably, adds Sestanovich, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy:
The Kremlin clearly hopes to legitimize the campaign now underway—and its results—by emphasizing themes like participation and inclusion, and by reminding voters that the president understands their grievances. But it has not been ready to let the outcome rest on positive appeals alone. ….To get the outcome they want, Putin and his circle appear willing to sacrifice legitimacy for stability. What they cannot know—anymore than outside observers do—is how and when cheating on legitimacy might produce in stability.
At United Russia’s party congress, Mr Putin warned of the threats facing the nation ahead of the elections: “Direct betrayal of the country’s interests…born out of nothing more than a desire to destabilise the situation, divide society and claw a way to power”, The Economist adds:
Mr Putin has long portrayed dissidents as traitors. He may now be gearing up for a purge. His popularity ratings and dominance of Russian politics has always depended on keeping the public occupied with televised news dramas, pitting his regime against a succession of enemies. Previous such dramas have including the war in Ukraine and the bombing of Syria. Pursuing internal enemies and purging the ranks of local governors and officials may be the Kremlin’s way of giving audiences a fresh storyline. In a video of Mr Belykh’s arrest which the prosecutor’s office released (before hurriedly taking it down), a voice behind camera can be heard saying: “We’ve already written the script.” Mr Belykh replies: “You wrote it badly.”