viernes, 1 de julio de 2016

The Non-Political Political Arrest of Nikita Belykh in Russia

Nikita Belykh, the governor of Russia’s Kirov region, was arrested on bribery charges last week after he allegedly accepted a four-hundred-thousand-euro bribe from a businessman in a Moscow restaurant. Photograph by TASS / Getty

A Russian governor has been arrested on bribery charges. The country’s Investigative Committee, which takes charge of all high-profile cases, announced the news on its Web site on Friday. Like several top-level Russian government agencies, the Committee has a bizarrely prominent spokesman, Vladimir Markin, who writes press releases in the first person. This time he wrote, “I’d like to chill the fervor of all the colleagues and supporters [of the accused], who are sure to get hysterical: crimes of corruption have no political shade.” The governor, Nikita Belykh, once headed a liberal opposition party, and Markin knew that the case would likely to be interpreted as political. He was right: the BBC and the Associated Press reports on the arrest noted Belykh’s opposition credentials in their third paragraphs.

Belykh, who is forty-one years old and has been governor of the Kirov region for seven years, is accused of accepting a four-hundred-thousand-euro bribe, in cash, at a Moscow restaurant. The Investigative Committee’s announcement was accompanied by photographs. In one, Belykh appears to be counting a large sum of cash and writing something out by hand. In another, he is confronted by someone who shines a flashlight on the bills, which appear to have been marked. In another of the uncaptioned photos, Belykh is holding up the palms of his hands, on which someone is shining a black-light flashlight. The light makes the governor’s white shirt pop. It’s not clear what else the picture is supposed to convey—perhaps that Belykh has traces of some chemical on his hands, or perhaps simply that he is guilty. He sure looks uncomfortable. Following his arrest, Belykh was placed in solitary pre-trial detention, in a Moscow facility usually reserved for high-profile inmates.

Before he was appointed by President Dmitry Medvedev to rule one of Russia’s eighty-three regions, Belykh headed a political party that had been co-founded by Boris Nemtsov, the anti-Putin politician who was assassinated last year. After the political establishment brought Belykh into the fold, he retained some friendships among foes of the Kremlin; otherwise, he was a loyal governor, like the rest of them, helping, for example, to draft the platform of his local chapter of the ruling United Russia Party. So it may be a stretch to interpret his arrest as political. But it is a tempting interpretation, especially since the arrest looked like a crude setup. Russian bloggers have pointed out that officials do not generally take bribes in person, especially in public places like a Moscow restaurant. People who know Belykh also pointed out that he had significant personal wealth before he became governor, which made it that much more difficult for them to believe that he was on the take.

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. 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.

It is impossible for a man to be a governor in Russia and not be party to corruption. This, of course, does not mean that Belykh took a bribe in marked hundred-euro bills at a Moscow restaurant. What it does mean is that we will almost certainly never know whether he accepted that particular bribe last week, because the Russian courts are as corrupt as any other part of the system and will convict more than ninety-nine per cent of the people who come before them. But if everyone is corrupt, why was Belykh targeted—was it because he was once opposed to President Vladimir Putin? The answer is, sort of.

The Russian economy has been in crisis for at least three years. The funnel-shaped corruption system has had less and less to suck up. One might assume that this means the individual take of each of the takers at the top has gotten smaller, but that is not how the mafia state works. Greed and habit demand that one’s slice get bigger even if the the pie as a whole is shrinking. The only way to achieve this outcome, then, is to reduce the number of slices.

The mafia state has been shedding members for a couple of years now. A couple of the minigarchs—billionaires who seemed secure, until they didn’t—have had to forfeit their businesses and choose between arrest and exile. Three governors have been arrested in just more than a year: they are, in addition to Belykh, Alexander Khoroshavin, who led the Sakhalin region, in the far east, and Vyacheslav Gayzer, who ran the Komi republic, in the north. Khoroshavin, like Belykh, is accused of taking a bribe, while Gayzer is charged with fraud and conspiracy. All three governors are accused of fostering corrupt relationships with companies that do business in their regions, and all three are in jail. Unlike Belykh, the other two governors were members of the ruling United Russia Party. But, like Belykh, they lived on the margins of the mafia clan: they did not grow up with Putin, were not friends with him when he was at university or at the K.G.B., and did not work with him in his early days in government in St. Petersburg. Their distance from the center of power is what made it possible to discard the governors in order to free up what used to be their share of the pie. In a way, all of their arrests are political, but only because corruption is what passes for politics in Russia.

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