Staunton, February 1 – Stalin infamously observed at the start of the purges that the greatest wreckers were those who worked hardest and appeared most loyal because then they could be promoted and be in a position to wreck far greater havoc. In short, displays of loyalty were not enough to protect anyone from repression under the Soviet dictator.
With the sentencing of former Kirov governor Nikita Belykh to eight years in jail for corruption, Moscow commentator Zoya Svetova says, Vladimir Putin and the siloviki around him have adopted the same principle even if they have not yet deigned to proclaim it openly (mbk.media/suzhet/vse-gubernatory-po-nitochke-xodyat/).
Belykh, Svetova continues, refused to admit his guilt and called the charges against him “a banal provocation” by the siloviki. He is the first of several governors now facing such charges. And both his behavior and that of his opponents says a great deal about the evolution of the Russian political system under Putin.
Throughout the trial, she says, Belykh continued to declare his loyalty to the Kremlin, did not make any political declarations, and even refused to appeal to the European Court of Human Rights lest he fall into the trap of becoming an opponent of Russia. But “loyalty isn’t saving” him, Svetova says; and it is unlikely to save the others now facing charges.
She notes that “political analysts and experts are certain that the criminal persecution of the governors in the course of the third Putin term above all are connected with the growth of influence of the FSB, a trend Kirill Rogov and Nikita Petrov make in The Political Development of Russia, 2014-2016 (in Russian at liberal.ru/upload/files/Prakticheskoe_razivitie_Rossii.pdf).
Rogov and Petrov point out that there has been a major change in the role of the FSB in such investigations from that of the KGB in the late Soviet period. In the earlier period, the KGB couldn’t undertake such investigations on its own. Only CPSU could approve them. Now the FSB is moving on its own or with the approval of only the very top of the power vertical.
Although Svetova doesn’t say so, that returns this aspect of the Russian political system not to what it was under Khrushchev or Brezhnev but rather to what it was under Stalin in the 1930s and 1940s.
Obviously, there are some regional leaders who are beyond the reach of the siloviki such as Ramzan Kadyrov of Chechnya but only because he is supported by Putin. Those who do not have that unqualified support have now been put on notice that the siloviki and above all the FSB can come after them almost at will.
And the FSB can count on convictions. Indeed, Svetova says, “the severe sentence” given to Below shows that “his friends and colleagues from the so-called liberal wing of the authorities could not defend him” against such an investigation and against such a sentence. Unlike the FSB, they couldn’t lobby at the highest levels.