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Mikhail Prokhorov: gilt-edged whipping boy for the Russian elections?

The recent appointment of Mikhail Prokhorov as leader of the liberal party Right Cause is puzzling. He’s the third richest man in Russia, so why should he bother? He has no choice, argues Mikhail Loginov. The Kremlin wants a hate figure on the scene to shore up support for Putin’s United Russia ahead of the parliamentary election. And you don’t disobey the Kremlin.

Mikhail Loginov
7 July 2011

The appearance on the Russian political scene of billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov to lead the liberal party Right Cause is one of the puzzles of the year. The businessman, who occupies the honourable position of no.3 on Russia’s Rich List, has until now been known for his total lack of interest in politics, neither supporting the opposition nor declaring himself for Putin. Even the notorious party he held in St Petersburg on the cruiser Aurora, an iconic emblem for Russian communists, came across as an example of Prokhorov’s supreme indifference to symbols and memorials. He might have wanted to hire the clipper Cutty Sark or the battleship Missouri, but given that the Aurora is conveniently lying at anchor in St Petersburg, then the deck of the city’s most famous ship was the obvious place for naked dancing. 

So why has this successful businessman and playboy decided to head a political party? The answer could lie in the recent statement by United Russia ideologue Andrey Isayev: “With the renewal of the Right Cause party, United Russia has a target for directed criticism”.  It is indeed a generous and timely gift. Strong criticism of an opponent could be a more effective victory strategy for United Russia than a catalogue of its own achievements. And it is quite possible that Prokhorov has taken up politics precisely to provide that target.

Zhirinovsky the Dragon

In this context it is instructive to recall events that took place in a certain southern district ten years ago, when local governors in Russia were still elected. The governor of the time, who enjoyed the support of the Kremlin, was coming to the end of his term of office. Moscow was keen for him to continue in his post, but the populace was less happy about the prospect. Polls suggested that the local Communist leader would be voted in. 

Zhironovsky in Belgorod

In 1999 the ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky was
parachuted in as a last-minute candidate for a regional
gubernatorial election to play the evil dragon whom the
failing Kremlin-backed incumbent could slay.
(Photo: Zygmunt Dzieciolowski)

It may or not have been a coincidence that at this point a federal level politician suddenly entered the race: Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the Liberal-Democrat Party of Russia. Zhirinovsky’s election campaign was crude and aggressive: he made fun of local traditions, and promised to get rid of the entire administration and bring in his own party members from Moscow to run the district. There were constant incidents: at one meeting with voters Zhirinovsky’s bodyguards beat up a passer-by, and at another he himself pushed an elderly woman.

At the same time rumours began to circulate in the district. Zhirinovsky had inspired them himself, by announcing that on election day two railway carriages full of his supporters would arrive to vote for him – at the time this was perfectly legal. According to the rumours, however, there would be two entire trainloads of Zhirinovsky’s storm troopers, and that as well as voting they would terrorise the regional centre.

The locals were terrified. It seemed that they were about to be invaded by the Nazis or attacked by a dragon. But suddenly a knight in shining armour appeared, to deliver them from this fate. Unsurprisingly, it was the local governor. He announced that he would not hand his fellow citizens over to the “Fuhrer from Moscow”. The local television station started showing anti-Nazi films, and local firms held meetings of their workers directed against the "invader". 

The Communist candidate was forgotten: the opposition, unlike the ruling administration, could not protect the populace. And no one in the district was surprised when the governor, seen not long before as a lame duck, won at the first round.

This provincial political scenario of the governor-protector and the wicked dragon could well be repeated at a national level in the autumn of 2011. The role of knight in shining armour will be taken by the Popular Front and United Russia. And Prokhorov gets to play the thankless role of the dragon.

Putin is not enough

If the national Duma election were to take place now, United Russia would win it. When it does take place, in December, they will still win.  But the party has a problem: victory is not enough; they need a landslide. They must win as many votes as in the last elections, in 2007, and ideally even more.

Putin's new All-Russia Popular Front, set up to reinvigorate United Russia, invites the question as to whom the front is uniting against. At this point there appeared on the political scene a figure who fits the role of “the enemy” like a glove.

Today this task does not seem achievable.  United Russia’s popularity has slipped. For those Russians who access the news via the internet, i.e. the majority of the population, United Russia is "the party of swindlers and thieves", the name given to it by blogger Alexei Navalny.

In 2007, two months before the Duma election, Putin declared himself leader of United Russia, and the party’s popularity ratings immediately went up. But he can’t pull the same trick twice. Putin’s personal popularity is in decline. Also, an attempt to repeat an old strategy will lack any novelty effect. United Russia owes its relatively high rating to its positioning since 2007 as “Putin’s party”. 

The All-Russia Popular Front was set up to offer the voter something just a little different. But the question immediately arose: if the country is supposed to be uniting in some front or other, who are we expecting to fight? At this point there appeared on the political scene a figure who fits the role of “the enemy” like a glove.

Blood, sweat and champagne

Throughout human history very rich people have never been universally loved or admired. In Russia, thanks to its Communist past, this dislike has turned into uncontrollable hatred. Vladimir Mayakovsky’s lines, written in 1917, “Eat your pineapples, chew your grouse / Your last day is coming, bourgeois louse”, have become the ultimate Communist caricature of the capitalist: he feasts on delicacies washed down with sophisticated drinks, indulges in decadent amusements and vices; meanwhile the poor starve. 

img_large_56.jpg

What's not to hate? Prokhorov has built a reputation for excessive wealth and a dissolute lifestyle that makes him a caricature of the filthy-rich playboy the public love to loathe. (Photo: mprokhorov.com)

According to the same ideology, it’s not just the “bourgeois lice” who lunch on pineapples and champagne: the arty bohemian classes are equally capable of it. The bourgeois spends his days wondering how to intensify his exploitation of the working class - through lowered costs, higher productivity, sackings. He is a human press for squeezing blood, sweat and tears out of the working class.

If we look at the most significant and best known events in Prokhorov’s life before he became head of Right Cause, what we see is the caricature capitalist of Soviet propaganda. Prokhorov was arrested in the French ski resort of Courchevel for arriving with a group of young women, most of them young enough to be his daughters. Then there was the famous party on the Aurora referred to above. A banquet next to the gun whose shot began the principal anti-capitalist revolution of the 20th century was an interesting act of historical revenge on Lenin and the Bolsheviks.

Prokhorov with workers

Prokhorov visiting his Norilsk nickel mine in 2003. He
has alienated workers, socialists and centrists by
lobbying for longer hours and easier termination of
employees' contracts. (Photo: mprokhorov.com)

In other words, Prokhorov is the ideal prototype of the caricature capitalist, spending his money on elite forms of entertainment. And just like the caricature of the evil entrepreneur, he is a slavedriver, squeezing blood and sweat out of his workers.  In 2010 Prokhorov described Russia’s employment legislation as out of date and a restraint on the modernisation of production. Among other things, he suggested that the process of getting rid of workers be simplified, that all workers be transferred to short-term contracts and that, with their agreement, the working week be extended to 60 hours. His idea was attacked by both the trade unions and United Russia, and later Dmitry Medvedev said that he would not allow a 60-hour week.

After that, given that the overwhelming majority of Russian voters need to work for a living, there was little point in Prokhorov putting himself up for election. But he did.

Vote United Russia or you’re on the slippery slope to slavery!

Assessing the chances of Right Cause at the election, the chairman of United Russia, Boris Gryzlov, has expressed doubts that Prokhorov’s party can gain second place. He believes that it will win not more than 5-7% of the vote. He is probably right; six or seven percent is the most that Prokhorov can hope for. Of course, the party will attract certain voters, for example those who supported democratic parties in the past. Two or three percent of the electorate may not be attracted by Right Cause’s democratic credentials, but are impressed with Prokhorov’s business acumen as creator of the "e-mobile" hybrid electric car project. And last but not least, some voters, at any rate female ones, will vote for Prokhorov’s party because of its leader’s good looks.

oligarchs and Yeltsin

The country needs an enemy: the Kremlin appears to
be asking Prokhorov to revive the public memory of
reviled oligarchs, such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (top)
and Boris Berezovsky (bottom), who both wielded great
influence over President Yeltsin in their 1990s heyday.

Put all these together and you might get 7% - the minimum tally for gaining admission to the State Duma. Prokhorov cannot hope for more; he will be sunk by his notorious banquets, his attacks on workers’ rights, and the basketball club he has bought in the USA. In short, as a rival to United Russia, Prokhorov is hopeless. But he is still useful as an opponent.

During the pre-election campaign, Prokhorov is not just a "target for directed criticism", as Isayev put it. He is also a symbol of the "lawless 90s" and the encroachment of capitalism on workers’ rights. He is a caricature monster from which the people must be protected. And they will be protected by the Popular Front, headed by Putin, and, of course, by United Russia.

Having declared Prokhorov Public Enemy No.1, United Russia will appeal to people’s instinctive fear for their future – in all probability, successfully. A middle-aged working class woman won’t understand what an “oligarch’s revenge” is, but when she is told “if you don’t vote for United Russia, you’ll have to work till 8 o’clock in the evening”, she will understand that. And she will vote for United Russia. That is how the party will get the necessary number of votes.

What Prokhorov will get out of the campaign is more difficult to say. But since October 2003, the date of Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s arrest, Russian billionaires have been very open to any approaches from the Kremlin.

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