Dozens of villagers are lined up at the gates of the decrepit local boatyard on a breezy Saturday morning to witness an unheard-of event. They gaze in wonder as the visitor arrives: never in living memory has a regional governor paid a call to the backwater town of Arkul, on the Vyatka River, roughly 500 miles northeast of Moscow. Climbing out of his battered Land Cruiser in scuffed jeans and a New York Yankees cap, Nikita Belykh makes a startling contrast to Russia's standard-issue provincial bureaucrats. (Article continued below...)
Looks are the least of the differences: Belykh made his name opposing those entrenched post-Soviet apparatchiks as one of the most determined pro-democracy activists in the country. Old friends were shocked and angry when he abruptly abandoned their street protests and took a Kremlin appointment as governor of Kirov oblast, deep in Russia's neglected heartland. But Belykh is tackling his new job with all the energy he used to radiate as an opposition leader. He immediately begins peppering the boatyard's director with questions—especially about what needs fixing. "Tell me what you do!" Belykh says briskly. "Tell me everything!"
The shipyard is one small piece of an experiment he hopes will transform Russia—and so far, at least, he has the blessing of no less than Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev. It was Medvedev who appointed Belykh to the job late last year, essentially granting him a socioeconomic laboratory slightly larger than England. Kirov is a microcosm of Russia and its problems—chronic unemployment, decaying Soviet infrastructure and wretched public-health conditions, to name only three. Medvedev has made it clear that Kirov is his personal project and Belykh his protégé. If Belykh can raise Kirov up from its knees, there will be a clear precedent for applying the same management style across Russia. "Maybe some people would like to see us liberals fail," says Belykh. "My job is to prove the opposite."
And fast. Medvedev publicly deplores Russia's economic plight and has called for massive changes, but he may not have much longer to do anything about it. Former president Vladimir Putin, the KGB veteran who chose him as successor, recently dropped broad hints that he intends to take the presidency back at the next election, in 2012. Worse yet for both Medvedev and Belykh, hostility toward the Kirov project is growing, even within Medvedev's (and Putin's) own United Russia party. Two weeks ago the party's youth wing, the Young Guards, marched against Belykh's plan to hold a conference on regional development in Kirov. Whipped up by false rumors that the conference was sponsored by the U.S. International Republican Institute, the protesters carried professionally made banners with slogans like GET OUT WASHINGTON ORGANIZERS! and YANKEE GO HOME! They displayed no qualms about publicly attacking Medvedev's protégé—a sign of bigger challenges ahead.
But Belykh seems undeterred. Even by the standards of Russian democratic activists, he has a mind of his own. He grew up in a well-educated family near the Urals city of Perm. His parents expected him to study at one of the top schools in Moscow, but when he was 16 his father died of a heart attack, and Belykh stayed in Perm to look after his mother. That was the year Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank and defied an attempted coup by hardliners trying to roll back democratic reforms. To this day, Russia's first post-Soviet president remains Belykh's hero. "I come from a generation of Yeltsin democrats," he says. "Nobody else but Yeltsin dared to give people freedom in the conditions Russia lived in the 1990s. Unfortunately we did not manage to keep that hard-won freedom." Belykh adds, "Now our job is to rehabilitate democracy."
A high flier from the start, Belykh majored in law and economics simultaneously at Perm State. At 23 he was made vice president of a local investment house, and at 28 he was appointed the region's vice governor. The next year—2003—he ran for Parliament on the reformist Union of Right Forces ticket, but the tide had turned against the progressives: the party won no seats at all. Belykh stuck with the party anyway and moved to Moscow to become its leader, but times grew even tougher, and members began talking about making peace with Putin. Belykh opposed any such idea. "I did not see myself as a part of the Kremlin's project," he recalls. He quit the party in protest.
Putin's strong-arm tactics had effectively neutered Russia's liberal opposition. And yet Belykh couldn't just stand by while the country deteriorated. While Putin has won heavy domestic support with his loud, aggressive foreign policy, Russia is hollowing out inside. Reform at the local level gets no attention, but it's essential if the country is ever to thrive.
That's where Belykh decided to focus his efforts. He passed a message to Medvedev that he wanted to work in regional government. He knew his old associates would accuse him of selling out, but he saw no other way he could make a difference. He was still struggling with himself when Medvedev suggested making him governor of Kirov. The Kremlin wasn't taking chances. Belykh's first interview was with Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologist, who warned him to keep his mouth shut in public about national issues like the war with Georgia. Belykh would be permitted to do a weekly radio show called A Governor's Diary on the liberal Moscow-based Radio Echo network—but only if the program stayed away from "provocative" questions.
The new governor arrived in Kirov in January. One of the first things he did was hang a portrait of Boris Yeltsin on his office wall. Then he auctioned off his predecessor's official car, a Lexus. He allowed all street protests to go ahead, including a thinly attended gay pride parade, and announced he was ready to meet with any group that had a beef with the government. He's been working 12-hour days ever since, mainly talking with people about their grievances.
Kirov has no shortage of complaints. Unemployment is set to reach 20 percent by the end of the year. The oblast's sole gasoline distributor, Lukoil, uses its monopoly to demand the highest prices in the entire Volga federal region. Infrastructure and public utilities are a constant source of outrage. And as almost everywhere in Russia, the demographics are a disaster: between January and August 2008 (the most recent statistics available) Kirov recorded 10,474 births and 16,204 deaths in a total population of 1.5 million. On top of that, an estimated 15,000 people left last year to seek better lives elsewhere.
But what seems even more baffling to Belykh is that Kirov's people seem stuck in the old ways of dealing with a hostile bureaucracy. "For the first time in my life I find myself on the same side of the barricades as the government," he says in frustration. At one recent meeting, he struck a deal with local labor chiefs on job security and keeping factories open—and the next day, they published an open letter excoriating him for trying to cut teachers' salaries. In another instance, a group of local NGOs organized street protests against high utility rates only a day after Belykh gathered their leaders in his office to find a solution to exactly that problem. "I want to say to them: 'People, I am much more experienced with protests than all of you. Here I am, your governor, come in and find solutions together with me!' "
But the single biggest challenge may be the region's law-enforcement system. Local NGOs have documented dozens of police-brutality charges, including numerous alleged cases of anal rape in police custody. At least four alleged victims have registered complaints with prosecutors. Nevertheless, victims who were interviewed by NEWSWEEK insisted on closing their curtains and speaking in whispers for fear of retribution. Few have much hope that Belykh will prevail over the local security forces. "There are areas which neither Belykh nor even President Medvedev can change," says one of the victims' lawyers, asking not to be named criticizing the police. "I have lived a long life in the Russian law-enforcement system and can assure you, it lives by its own rules."
Belykh has asked all his old activist friends to join his team in Kirov, but few are willing to relocate so far from the social and cultural mainstream. Even his wife and their three children remain in Moscow, where she manages a travel agency. (Their eldest son, 6-year-old Yuri, started school there in September because Belykh didn't want the boy tagged by Kirov classmates as "the governor's son.") One activist friend who has accepted the invitation is Maria Gaidar, 27, the daughter of Yeltsin's acting prime minister back in 1992, YegorGaidar. She once rappelled down the side of the Great Stone Bridge just outside the Kremlin, to unfurl a banner declaring NO TO KGB POWER. When Belykh accepted the Kirov job, she excoriated him for "selling his soul to the devil" but then relented. Another old friend from the opposition, Konstantin Arzamastsev, had to think hard before joining the team. "Only my respect for Belykh made me take this job," he says. "Kirov is far from being an easy place to liberalize."
After months of wrangling, Belykh has managed to appoint eight deputies, but almost every other member of his government is a holdover from the old regime. Kirov's legislature has blocked other appointments. By law the governor is also entitled to nominate a senator to represent Kirov in the Federation Council, but Belykh's pick was vetoed by Medvedev himself. "They made Belykh governor without letting him put together a team of his own," says an aide to Nikolai Shaklein, the senator who was named instead, requesting anonymity when discussing his bosses.
Nevertheless, Belykh insists on running the place his way—as democratically as possible. He keeps his advisers working practically nonstop and has them debate all sides of any issue before he makes a decision on it. "We plan to turn this region into the most transparent, corruption-free, and business-friendly region in Russia," says Gaidar. "But that is a long way off. We face a wall of Soviet mentality that has not changed in 20 years." Sometimes it seems nearly impossible. "On my worst days I think it is easier to rule like an Asian despot than to become a Russian Obama," Belykh says. "But look, to me this job is a chance to change people's attitudes about democratic values."
Changing those attitudes in Kirov alone will take "a social revolution," Belykh says. First, people need to see tangible benefits in their lives. "The level of trust for liberals in Putin's Russia has shrunk to almost zero," says Belykh. Even so, Medvedev has shown plenty of trust in him. This May the president became the first Russian leader to visit the oblast since Tsar Alexander I in 1824. Medvedev didn't merely put in an appearance; with Belykh at his side, he announced a crowd-pleasing new plan to pay newly unemployed Russians a full year's benefits to help them launch new businesses. "I am Medvedev's man," says Belykh. "I am his appointee, on his team. And not anybody else's." The question is how far the leader of that team can go to make Belykh's experiment a success.