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Right cause. (Pity about the party...)

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Last week, controversial billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov stepped up to head “The Right Cause”, a right-liberal party with ties to the Kremlin. The move could help secure the return of Russian liberals to legal politics. But is this what the liberals actually need, asks Andrei Kolesnikov?

Andrei Kolesnikov
23 May 2011

A couple of years ago there was a very popular novel which playfully described itself as gangster-fiction and was said to have been written by the chief manipulator of Russian politics, the first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov.  The title of the book was “Close to zero”.   

This title is a rather apt description of the state of many areas of Russian life today. Real economic growth once the post-crisis bounce is taken into account? Close To zero. Temperature of the people’s mood? Close To zero. Political activity? Close To zero. Percentage of votes that could be garnered by an official party of right-wing liberals? Also close to zero. One of the Kremlin spin doctors actually said as much off the record; apparently the Right Cause party with its new billionaire leader Mikhail Prokhorov will be allowed about 2% of the votes at the general election.

prokh.jpg

In 2007, Mikhail Prokhorov spent some time as a guest
of the French state, arrested for alleged involvement in a
prostitution ring. The case was subsequently dropped.

The interesting thing is that if Right Cause were operating in the cut and thrust of a tough right-wing liberal opposition, it is highly likely they would receive many more votes, though would not be allowed to register.  The National Freedom Party (Parnas), led by Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Milov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Mikhail Kasyanov – all people with experience of administrative and political work at the very summit of the pyramid of government – has, for example, just submitted its documents for registration.  Polls have shown that its electoral potential is already 1-3%, as compared with the approximate 1% (i.e. close to zero) potential vote of the Right Cause party (this was before Prokhorov was announced leader).  The very latest polling (by the Public Opinion Foundation) in May gave the Right Cause just 0.3%. The reason for the fall? No doubt in the tougher and rougher political rhetoric of Nemtsov’s National Freedom Party, which in contrast owes nothing at all to the authorities and the political machine that serves them.

Inside the Right Cause party the appointment (election? rubber-stamping?) of Mikhail Prokhorov as leader was greeted ecstatically. The hypotheses that stand behind such enthusiasm are not irrational. Perhaps, indeed, if the party were headed by a rich, energetic and well-known personality, someone influential with the elites, it would be able to count on a rebranding, re-activisation of its operations. Perhaps it could then get into the Duma, by means fair or foul. Perhaps, if a right-liberal party gets into the Duma, it could play a part in legislation and acquire a platform to present right-liberal policies and influence politics. Perhaps this can be all be achieved by individual deputies, rather than a whole parties as the right-wing liberal Union of Right Forces once was.

Yet this opens up a whole series of questions: 1) would the party continue to be right-wing liberal? 2) will it actually be able to influence policy-making? 3) will it be supported by voters in any significant numbers? And 4) is a presence in the State Duma any way to participate in running the country and in policy-making?

Mikhail Prokhorov cannot unequivocally be described as a committed right-wing liberal and to call him the heir of the late moral leader of the liberals, Russia's chief reformer Yegor Gaidar, seems to me to be sacrilege. Committed liberals would be more likely to follow Boris Nemtsov, who was leader of the Union of Right Forces, than Mikhail Prokhorov.  Theoretically, the billionaire will be able to expand the social base of Right Cause by bringing on board entrepreneurs and representatives of the higher middle class, but he can have no hope of mass support, unless, of course, it's orchestrated by the Central Electoral Committee (Tsentrizbirkom).

To describe Mikhail Prokhorov the heir of Yegor Gaidar, late leader of the liberals, seems sacrilegious. Commmitted liberals would be far more likely to follow Boris Nemtsov

The reason for this is all very simple: some Russians are repelled by Prokhorov’s (honestly won) image of international playboy; others are put off by the oligarch’s closeness to the authorities (it was, after all, Prokhorov who presented Prime Minister Putin with a comic plan for developing the hybrid “Yo-mobile”). And then there is the matter of his own policies: still more will find his initiative on reforming employment legislation hard to stomach.  It may have been a correct liberalist initiative, but it was doomed to extreme unpopularity at grass roots level.  Of all the accusations recently levelled at Prokhorov, “social Darwinism” is the most intellectual and polite. 

Prokhorov's stance on social questions makes Right Cause an obvious target for both United Russia and the left-wing populist opponents. It does not take much imagination or manipulation to to depict Right Cause as the party of the oligarchs, the rich, Courchevel, the biathlon (Prokhorov heads up the relevant union) and basketball (the businessman owns the New Jersey Nets team).

Mikhail Prokhorov can certainly count on understanding and cooperation from the highest level of the elite (which is, of course, the natural, if not the ideological, vehicle for the Russian liberal idea). This stratum of elite society is armed with an important weapon, an exit strategy: at liberty to travel abroad with one-way ticket in his pocket, to a beautifully managed villa and children who study at prestigious foreign schools and universities, chattering glibly away in the “enemy’s” language. This exit strategy is clearly not available to the general mass of the electorate, who may share most of the basic liberal values, but will be unlikely to turn out to vote unanimously for Prokhorov's party.

There is very little time before the election, and without administrative leverage it will be almost impossible to work up a comprehensive party project. Even if Prokhorov gets such support it will be very difficult to muster the 7% of votes essential for a party to get into the Duma. In any case, such manipulation would be seen a mile off.

  • 20% of Russians have heard about Right Cause
  • One quarter of this 20% think the party is necessary
  • Just 2% think the party represents the interests of “ordinary people” 

    From Public Opinion Foundation 
  • All of which begs the question: why does this party — with or without Prokhorov — need to get into power?  So there should be a complete set of parties? So there be a semblance of representation for citizens with liberal leanings?  So that United Russia will have an ally during the election? Liberalist ideas are not too popular in Russia today and the authorities have never shown any particular desire to take the opinions of the liberal minority into consideration. The Kremlin would not have destroyed the Union of Right Forces if it did. Moreover, on a paradoxical note, liberal ideas are actually quite well represented in government, in the sphere of economics at least: Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and the Chairman of the Bank of Russia Sergei Ignatiev both advance liberal budgetary and monetary policies (insofar as the political situation will allow). In this sense, liberals can even be content with themselves. 

    Against such a background it is incomprehensible why the liberals should sell themselves to a fat cat just so as to get into a Duma that has lost both authority and independence. Real politics happen in the government or the Presidential Administration, the internet or on the streets and all these institutions are well able to manage without Prokhorov's party.

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