We are all still scratching our heads over President Dmitry Medvedev's decision this week to name former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh as governor of Kirov Oblast.
No one seems to have come up with a satisfactory explanation of what Medvedev (Putin?) could be thinking. Or Belykh for that matter, although the 33-year-old career politician might well have been less than excited at the prospect of a lifetime in the opposition. Even Belykh, when interviewed by RFE/RL's Russian Service this week, was coy, saying only: "In this case, time will put everything in its place."
But the discussion around the Belykh case on our Russian Service airwaves has produced a lot of memorable and intriguing insight. Political observer Aleksandr Kynev was among those who noted that none of Russia's powerful octopuses -- the state megacorporations -- has any particular interest in the backwater that is Kirov Oblast, so Medvedev could make a "liberal" gesture without consequence.
Belykh's former SPS colleague Boris Nemtsov (who used to be governor of neighboring Nizhny Novgorod Oblast) took up this line as well. "This is one of the most depressed regions of the country," Nemtsov told RFE/RL. "If in Soviet times they threw [good] people into the [hopeless] agriculture sector, now, evidently, they are throwing them at Kirov Oblast."
But observers also viewed the move as part of a concerted effort to decimate the credible opposition.
"The authorities with such moves demonstrate that they have not only the whip, but cakes to offer as well," Kynev said. "I think this is a kind of symbol, possibly, to other oppositionists that, if they play their cards right, they might find themselves in demand as well. I think the reasoning here is, of course, clear: there is a socioeconomic crisis and the authorities want to minimize the possible consequences of those political groupings that aren't loyal to the Kremlin and, as far as possible, get them into one boat with the authorities."
Yabloko party leader Sergei Mitrokhin went farther. "This appointment is directly connected with the liquidation of the SPS," he told RFE/RL. "Most likely, it was a multi-move combination. In exchange for the destruction of the SPS, its leaders were given some very lucrative shares [in power]: [Anatoly] Chubais was given nanotechnology with its unlimited government financing. [Leonid] Gozman was given a post leading a pro-Kremlin party, and Nikita Belykh was given a governorship."
Liberal oppositionist Grigory Yavlinsky also emphasized the cooption angle. "In general, the authorities want everyone to serve them," he told RFE/RL. "This is what they really want. They want all the politicians, anyone of any significance, to be in service. They already have a former German chancellor serving them, to say nothing of particular politicians. And they have definite stimuli that work pretty effectively on people. Not on everyone. After all, not everyone is serving them."
Asked by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mikhail Sokolov whether inviting people like Belykh into the government wouldn't expand the social base of the ruling elite and make it more stable, Yavlinsky said no. "In the absence of public politics, such moves will not have much public impact."
And speaking of Yavlinsky, perhaps one mystery surrounding him has been solved. Readers may recall that he was much criticized for holding a closed-door meeting with then-President Putin in March. Neither man subsequently revealed the content of that discussion, although it was widely reported that Yavlinsky might be offered a high government post in Putin's government after he became prime minister.
Analyst Andrei Piontkovsky (who was in the leadership of Yavlinsky's Yabloko party at the time and who, incidentally, very nearly became Russia's next prominent political prisoner) told RFE/RL yesterday that at the March meeting, Putin offered Yavlinsky the post of Russian ambassador to the United Nations. Piontkovsky said Putin "argued that relations with the West are getting worse and somehow they need to be settled down and [Yavlinsky] is known to be a supporter of strategic partnership between Russia and the United States." Piontkovsky went on to speculate that even when the offer was made, Putin knew that war with Georgia was on the horizon, and part of his plan was to place Yavlinsky in the position of having to defend Russia's actions in front of the international community. He added, though, that Yavlinsky would have accepted the post if he felt there was any chance he would have been able "to change Russian foreign policy toward a more reasonable course that would correspond to our national interests."
Belykh incidentally announced shortly after the appointment that he will not participate in the opposition Solidarity movement. It remains to be seen whether he'll join the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party -- which he has criticized relentlessly for years -- now that he'll need to hobnob with all the country's other governors.