Pravoye delo: why the Kremlin puppeteers broke Prokhorov’s string

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Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s appointment as leader of the pro-market liberal party ‘Right Cause’ was greeted with scepticism. Now he has effectively been dismissed and the party has split. Was this part of the original plan or was Prokhorov becoming a threat? Andrei Kolesnikov considers the recent developments

Andrei Kolesnikov
20 September 2011

In June, the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was entrusted by the Kremlin with the task of creating the pro-market liberal party so lacking in Russian politics. Now he has been ousted from the project by the people from the Presidential Administration he has called ‘puppeteers’. What happened is perfectly clear, but for some reason it has given rise to a mass of conspiracy theories.

More efficient, less manageable

Many observers take the view that this was specially contrived so that Prokhorov could take part in the presidential election, but within that group opinions diverge. Some say that, by revealing the lack of an alternative, Prokhorov’s ‘political infantilism’ would have only served to reinforce the merits of Vladimir Putin. Others insist that, on the contrary, Prokhorov had quite a good chance. Then there is the party itself. Clearly, a right-wing party that was already formed and widely promoted would have been extremely suitable as a platform for the future political activities of Dmitry Medvedev. Other observers maintain that Prokhorov’s job was to destroy the right-wing project.

“What the authorities wanted was just a front. The project could be efficient or manageable but not both, because the two were incompatible. As soon as it started becoming more efficient – under an oligarch, used to taking his own decisions – it became less and less manageable.”

This is all too complicated, because in the Russian political system everything has a frighteningly simple explanation (despite that system's capacity for manipulation, its secretiveness and atypicality). After the authorities had sunk the right-wing party 'Union of Right Forces', they were concerned that Russia had no pro-market liberal project. What they wanted was just a front, to allow the small group of right-wing intellectuals to vote at the elections, thus guaranteeing the turnout necessary to legitimise 'United Russia'.  The project could be efficient or manageable but not both, because the two were incompatible. Under the triumvirate of Leonid Gozman (the link with the Union of Right Forces, whose chief ideologue he had been), Boris Titov (representing business) and Georgii Bovt (right wing political commentator), the party was manageable, but ineffectual. As soon as it started becoming more efficient – under an oligarch, used to taking his own decisions – it became less and less manageable.

This was the source of the conflict: the inner political management of the Presidential Administration, run by the evil genius of Russian politics Vladislav Surkov, considered that the party was theirs. Prokhorov considered it his. In Russia the administrative resource, or pulling strings to influence the outcome of elections, still works without a hitch. When it became apparent that Prokhorov would not compromise and was throwing his weight around by refusing to omit Yevgeny Roizman, founder of 'City without Drugs' from the election list of candidates, the party ceased to exist for him. It was simply taken away from him, by declaring the congress of his supporters unlawful. This actually means that the the party has de facto ceased to exist, because in Russia a party without a strong leader is doomed to failure.

Prokhorov quits

The short political career of Mikhail Prokhorov seems to have come to an end. The billionaire quit as leader of the pro-market liberal Pravoye delo party under pressure from the Kremlin.

Characteristically, no one was in the slightest embarrassed by the fact that the tricks used by the Kremlin or Staraya Ploshchad [home of the Presidential Administration] to manipulate the political system had been revealed. Because the way politics are ordered in Russia is no secret to anyone. At one point the system was metaphorically named 'sovereign democracy' – the concept itself may have been forgotten, but in essence it still exists. Most importantly, this doesn't bother the voters one bit. According to a Levada Center survey, 39% of respondents consider that Putin and Medvedev will decide the outcome of the presidential election between themselves, with no participation from the electorate. 32% think this is normal and completely fair.

“All Medvedev's attempts at part liberalisation of the political system result in it becoming irrevocably cast in bronze, and in even less representation in a parliament which already represents no one”

As for the parliamentary elections – the Presidential Administration will have to face that the line-up will be as before: 'United Russia', 'Just Russia' (which has lost its administrative support), the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and the Communisty Party of the Russian Federation. The battle lines will be drawn up between old men i.e. the party of power and the 2 parties which have for many years been headed by the easily recognisable eternal candidates for the presidency, who effectively embarked on their political careers between two epochs, in the dying days of the USSR – Gennady Zyuganov and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. This is to exclude the return to politics of Grigory Yavlinsky, the erstwhile successful leader of 'Yabloko', which today has no chance of passing the electoral threshold. All Medvedev's attempts at part liberalisation of the political system result in it becoming irrevocably cast in bronze, and in even less representation in a parliament which already represents no one. The next stage will presumably be not 4 parties, but 3: 'United Russia', LDPR and the Communist Party.

Vladimir Putin, one of the few that doubted...

Vladimir Putin was actually one of the few that doubted in the possibility of success for the 'Right Cause' project. He knows too much about the political system he created himself to be able to imagine that this particular story could have a happy end. He and his cronies have put enormous effort into destroying a reasonably successful and genuine right-wing party. One only has to remember the Luzhniki speech during the autumn 2007 election campaign, where Putin accused the liberals of all the sins in the book: observers immediately christened this speech 'Vova's triumph' [Vova – familiar form of Vladimir, ed]. So why did he need a pro-market liberal project, even if it was only a toy and easy to manage? He is quite well enough served by 'United Russia' and its clone, the 'United Popular Front', with whose help he is trying to attract more voters and correct the image of the pro-Putin forces, so damaged by the description of 'United Russia' as a 'party of crooks and thieves'.

Putin did not release his Deputy Prime Ministers Igor Shuvalov and Aleksei Kudrin for the project, because he considered 'Right Cause' insufficiently important. To be completely honest, in doing this he saved their reputations, because they are considered to be liberal officials. Everything would have ended in a fight and a fiasco, because no one hates Aleksei Kudrin more than Vladislav Surkov does. And games such as these would have discredited – not Russian democracy, because that doesn't bother Putin – but the executive branch of power. In addition it should be clear that under Prokhorov 'Right Cause' was not a pro-market liberal party in the full sense. Its ideology was unbelievably eclectic, but the real danger was that Prokhorov might become a real politician and offer some kind of alternative. That would have mattered more than ideology. 


As for Mikhail Prokhorov, the Prime Minister and 'National Leader' was less concerned about him than he was about Shuvalov and Kudrin. Let him form a party if he wants. Anything to keep the child quiet, as long as he remembers his duties to the government.  He could form a party independently – if, of course, he's not afraid of the troubles he might encounter on the way. In which case, he'll have to sort them out himself.

The official message was that 'The Prime Minister has no meeting scheduled with Mikhail Prokhorov.' The schedule might have such a meeting added to it, but the PM and the billionaire will certainly not be discussing politics. They might discuss the oligarch’s new hybrid automobile project, the e-mobile. They might also discuss the social responsibility of big business. The nearer the elections, the more important such responsibilities become – the fulfillment of pre-election promises requires the oligarchs to make financial sacrifices.

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