The governor of Russia’s Kirov Oblast, Nikita Belykh, was arrested on bribery charges last Friday. He was detained in a fancy restaurant in the center of Moscow for taking €400,000 in cash. The sting operation, conducted by the FSB and the Investigative Committee, was filmed on camera and later broadcast on national TV. The bust footage was accompanied by photos of Bekykh’s hands covered with a special dye, visible under ultraviolet light, which was smeared onto the money before it was handed to him.
According to prosecutors, Belykh took the money in exchange for helping two companies operating in Kirov Oblast. The governor, who is under arrest awaiting trial, faces up to 15 years in prison. Belykh didn’t deny that he had taken the money, but nevertheless called it a set-up. The governor’s legal representative later told the press that the money was not a bribe but a “sponsorship of an off-budget city fund that helps pay for reconstruction projects in the Kirov Oblast”.
Nikita Belykh, 41, was appointed Governor of Kirov Oblast by President Dmitry Medvedev in 2008. Before that, he had been a member of the Perm Oblast regional parliament, and was the regional chief of the Union of Right Forces (SPS) party. At SPS, Belykh had worked with Boris Nemtsov, who was Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister in 1998 and who was shot to death in Moscow in February 2015. In 2005, Belykh was elected as leader of the SPS but left the party before he was appointed governor. In 2009, Belykh invited opposition leader Alexey Navalny to work for him as a freelance advisor. In 2010, Governor Belykh was called to testify in a case surrounding the sale of Kirov Liquor Factory shares at below-market rates by the regional government; the police also searched his office and apartment. In 2013, Belykh testified in court on behalf of Navalny, defending him of charges that he had stolen Kirov Forest Company assets; the court handed Navalny a five years suspended sentence. In 2014, when Bekykh’s first term ended, President Vladimir Putin appointed him as the Kirov Oblast Governor designate; later that year Belykh was elected as governor.
Despite his history with the opposition, Nikita Belykh could hardly be called anything but a perfect apparatchik in today’s Kremlin-run system. He hasn’t done anything that would earn him the title of “the last liberal governor”, as some media outlets have taken to calling him in light of recent events. It is also wrong to think of Belykh’s arrest in terms of it being some kind of public show ahead of the upcoming Duma elections.
In fact, Belykh’s arrest has nothing to do with politics. It is all about the recent internal fight between the FSB’s factions over control of various businesses, a source familiar with the security services said.
But recently another FSB department, the most secretive and opaque—the 6th Service of the Interior Security Department of the FSB, created in 2008—has been gaining more and more power by destroying “competitors”. The 6th Service consists of only 35 people, and initially was meant to serve as an intelligence agency inside the FSB itself, although it has never been given an official role in the organization. Unofficially, it’s been called the Gestapo, and is known to be under the protection and curation of General Viktor Zolotov, Putin’s long-time head of security who was recently appointed to lead the newly-formed National Guard.
The first major blow of the Interior Security Department of the FSB (masterminded by the men of the 6th Service) landed on the Economical Security and Anticorruption Department of the Interior Ministry, when in 2014 its head, Lieutenant General Denis Sugrobov, was arrested. Sugrobov was in the process of investigating corruption inside the FSB but was outflanked. He is now in custody awaiting trial, while his deputy, General Boris Kolesnikov, who had been arrested as well, allegedly committed suicide by jumping from a balcony with limited access, after “managing to run away from his guards”. Before he jumped, Kolesnikov had been beaten so severely in custody that his skull had been fractured.
After this win over the Interior Ministry, the 6th Service started a fight against the aforementioned Directorate K, which by that time had been merged with Directorate N, which was responsible for fighting narcotics trafficking, smuggling, and organized crime. This battle was also won: in May of this year, the Head of Directorate K, Viktor Voronin, sent in his resignation letter after his subordinate was connected to a criminal investigation of bribery. Voronin’s boss at the FSB’s Economic Security Service, Yury Yakovlev, was allegedly also sacked, though his departure was not announced publicly. It’s not yet clear yet who will head the Economic Security Service, but RBC reports that Directorate K will soon be headed by the acting 6th Service chief Ivan Tkachev, the same man who ran the Sugrobov and Kolesnikov operation.
The Interior Security Department of the FSB, which the 6th Service is part of, has been handling all the recent major corruption cases against officials. The Governor of Sakhalin Oblast Aleksander Khoroshavin, the Governor of Komi Republic Vyacheslav Geiser, and the Mayor of Vladivostok Igor Pushkarev are all three awaiting trials right now. Governor Nikita Belykh appears to be just the latest name on that list, the latest victim of the internecine FSB fight. Once again it is the Interior Security Department that is prosecuting his case.
It’s also notable that on the same day that Belykh was arrested, the FSB raided the offices of the National Anti-Narcotics Center in Moscow Region. The Center is headed by the assistant of a prominent United Russia MP Sergey Zheleznyak, while Zheleznyak himself heads the Center’s supervisory board. Needless to say, control over anti-narcotics agencies can be extremely profitable for drug smuggling. The raid happened less then two months after the Federal Drug Control Service was eliminated, all of which suggests that the 6th Service may be looking to take control over this business sphere as well.
The Russian economy has been shrinking significantly for the past two years, and in kleptocratic states, this leads to fights for what’s left. Vladimir Putin, who would always let rival groups jostle below him for power in an elaborate system of checks and balances, may have started to lose control over some of them. This may have led him to decide to centralize power more. Putin has always trusted the siloviki more than anyone else, which is why General Viktor Zolotov conducts so many operations now. And with Zolotov’s blessing, one particular department of the FSB has continued to consolidate control.
Apparently, over the past two to three years, Russia has quietly become not just kleptocracy, but also a stratocracy.