Dissident Turned Technocrat Medvedev Takes On Putin with Governor Appointment

Russian President Dimitri Medvedev has named a former opposition leader as the governor of the region of Kirov Oblast. The appointment is a test of whether Medvedev can assert himself against his powerful prime minister, Vladimir Putin.


Nikita Belykh has a difficult relationship with the armed forces. But on Defender of the Motherland Day, Belykh, who is governor of Kirov Oblast, located some 800 kilometers northeast of Moscow, attended a ceremony honoring the country's war veterans.

Russian oblasts are similar to federal states in Germany and the US, and Belykh acts as the Kremlin's representative in Kirov. On this key date in the Russian calendar, Belykh was clearly unhappy with his duties. The normally eloquent governor seemed ill at ease as he read his speech off a piece of paper.

On the stage and behind the lectern, eight soldiers stood to attention, their parade uniforms sparkling under the spotlights. They too were uneasy with the situation. The military considers Belykh a weak liberal, and the applause was suitably muted. For Belykh the appearance was therefore a foray into enemy territory -- until recently, he was a vociferous opponent of the government.

Barely two years ago, policemen in gray riot gear arrested Belykh during a demonstration. At the time he was the leader of the opposition Other Russia coalition together with Garry Kasparov, the former chess world champion and a diehard critic of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. And yet a year ago President Dimitri Medvedev appointed Belykh to be governor of Kirov Oblast. Belykh was just 33 years old.

Clear Signal

Medvedev's decision to appoint an opposition leader and former dissident was a clear signal. Although Medvedev's mentor and predecessor, Vladimir Putin, wants to keep the opposition in check by any means, Medvedev hopes to win them over to help push through his modernization policies. But Belykh's meteoric promotion annoyed both the Kremlin old guard and local elites, who had made themselves comfortable in Kirov, creating a kind of mini-Soviet Union in which the roads were still named after Marx and Lenin.

Belykh needed allies. He brought along Maria Gaidar, the 27-year-old daughter of former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, the architect of Russia's market economy, who led the first reform-oriented cabinet under President Boris Yeltsin.

Maria Gaidar also made a name for herself through a bold protest. Infuriated by Putin's decision to cancel gubernatorial elections, she abseiled off a bridge within sight of the Kremlin and unfurled a banner that read "Give us our elections back, you bastards!"

Now that Gaidar is responsible for health and social affairs in Belykh's cabinet, she must learn to govern. Average monthly incomes in Kirov are about €200 ($272), and 20 percent of its inhabitants live under the poverty line. Although she visits hospitals and has announced the opening of the first privately-run pensioners' home, both Maria Gaidar and her boss are despised by the country's hawks.

Testing Ground

President Medvedev is backing his young Turks. Although his predecessor, Vladimir Putin, mainly appointed high-ranking members of the intelligence service as governors when he was calling the shots at the Kremlin, most of the 23 governors appointed by Medvedev have been young, business-friendly technocrats.

What's more, Medvedev made a point of visiting Belykh, the most controversial of his appointees, last year. No Russian leader had traveled to distant Kirov since 1824 -- no tsar, no communist secretary general, no Russian president.

The region has thus become something of a testing ground for Medvedev's leadership. It will show whether he can push through the modernization plans he has put at the heart of his presidency. With two years to go before the next presidential election, many are wondering if he can build up his own power base and finally step out of Putin's shadow. Can his ideas for reform and the battle against corruption and alcoholism be transferred from Kirov Oblast -- population 1.4 million -- to Russia itself, which has almost exactly 100 times as many inhabitants?

Kirov and its ageing defense and agricultural industry are a microcosm of the country as a whole. "If I fail here, my career is at an end," says Belykh, who has already confided to friends that he is toying with the idea of moving into the Kremlin in about 20 years' time.

Blamed for Suffering

Belykh was recommended to Medvedev by Anatoly Chubais, the man who privatized large swathes of the economy after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Putin's inner circle, most of whom are nationalist patriots, despise Chubais as virulently as they do Gaidar. Conservatives blame Yeltsin-era reformers for the widespread suffering of the 1990s as well as Russia's decline from a global superpower on a par with the United States to merely a large country with primarily regional influence.

Even so, Medvedev was able to push Belykh through against Vladimir Grodetsky, the head of a state munitions company and the candidate favored by Putin and his supporters. Grodetsky's company is one of the main shareholders of the armaments firm Molot ("Hammer"), which is based in Vyatskiye Polyany, a town of 38,000 inhabitants on the southern edge of Kirov Oblast.

Molot was once a shining example of Soviet manufacturing. During World War II, some 2 million Shpagin-brand submachine guns rolled off its production lines. Every Russian child knows them from old war movies. The plant also produced the legendary Kalashnikov assault rifle. At the time the factory was shrouded in secrecy, partly because it was so successful. Today its bosses are more concerned with concealing its decline.

Russia's armed forces have shrunk by about 70 percent since the Soviet era. As a result, the military can no longer afford to buy as many weapons as the industry would like to sell, meaning production at Molot and elsewhere has been wound down.


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