Responding to Discontent


Phillip Pan of the Washington Post offers some ideas about the meaning of Nikita Belykh’s appointment as governor of Kirov province – a move which destroyed the Union of Right Forces in one swipe, but inserted an unexpectedly fresh face into the governing coalition.  Wouldn’t it be nice if the governors could just freely compete in elections?

The appointment, which prompted accusations of betrayal by some of Belykh’s colleagues, is a sign of the uncertainty surrounding Russian politics as Putin confronts the country’s worst economic crisis in a decade and the fractured opposition tries to tap into rising public discontent and mount a new challenge. (…)

Although more than three-quarters of Russians continue to approve of Putin and Medvedev, 40 percent now say the country is headed in the wrong direction, compared with 24 percent in September, according to a recent poll by the Moscow-based Levada Center. About 43 percent said the country was moving in the right direction, and 18 percent declined to answer.

Thousands of people participated in small demonstrations in severalRussian cities over the weekend to protest a plan to raise tariffs onimported cars. Riot police clashed with protesters in the eastern portcity of Vladivostok for the second Sunday in a row.

Several leading members of the democratic opposition set asidelong-standing differences this month to form a new anti-Kremlinmovement named Solidarity, after the victorious anti-Communist movementin Poland.

“The crisis means the incompetence of the authorities is ondisplay,” said Ilya Yashin, a leader of one of Russia’s main democraticparties, Yabloko, and a member of the Solidarity coalition. “It meanswe have a chance to present an alternative.” (…)

But then Putin and Medvedev offered him the governorship ofKirov, a small, impoverished region with a population of about 1.5million. He said he took the job because they assured him they were notdemanding his political loyalty, and because he wanted to show thepublic that democrats could be effective managers.

“Of course, building an individual island of liberalism in anilliberal country isn’t going to work,” he said. “But at least I cantry to do something positive. One of the problems of the liberalmovement is that we have no success stories.”

Belykh said he was uncertain of Putin’s and Medvedev’s motives, andspeculated that they were trying to signal a willingness to work withcritics. “I don’t know if it’s real,” he said. “Only time will tell.”