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Prologue: an oligarch falls

The Russian election campaign is hotting up. In the middle of September Mikhail Prokhorov was dismissed as leader of the ‘Right Cause’ party, having fallen foul of both the party members and the Kremlin. This sets the context to an even bigger drama, and could be seen as the first stage of it. Richard Sakwa considers the implications of the debacle.

Mikhail Prokhorov’s dramatic rise and fall as leader of the ‘Right Cause’ (Pravoe delo) liberal party illustrates not only the debilitated condition of right wing parties in Russia today, but also more profoundly the character of the political system as a whole.

Prokhorov had been selected by the Kremlin and led the party from 25 June 2011, yet barely three months later he was unceremoniously jettisoned and cast into the political wilderness. The political managers in the Kremlin had a clear agenda in trying to revive the fortunes of ‘Right Cause’. With support for United Russia and the political leadership declining, and the obviously weakened condition of the political system, the intention was to ensure the presence of a ‘liberal’ party in the Sixth Duma to be elected on 4 December 2011. Various names had been mentioned in this regard over the spring, including the finance ministerAlexei Kudrin and first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov. None of these political heavyweights in the end could be persuaded to sacrifice themselves for the ‘Right Cause’, so the choice fell on Prokhorov, head of the powerful Onexim industrial and banking group. Still only 46 years old, according to Forbes Russia’s he was Russia’s third richest man with estimated wealth in the region of $18bn. Prokhorov had already gained notoriety for a number of scandals, including issues associated with his holiday home in Courchevel in France. He also had the funds to assume the burden of financing the party’s electoral campaign. Prokhorov had a degree of charisma, which it was felt would rub off on to ‘Right Cause’.

Few serious observers imagined Mikhail Prokhorov would be given the freedom to forge a truly independent and liberal voice as leader of "Right Cause" (Pravoye delo). But the nature of his departure has led many to question the oligarch's fundamental judgement, as well as the competence of his Kremlin minders.
Photo (c) Demotix/RFEFL

Thus, clearly a deal was struck: Prokhorov would invest his time and money in the party, and in return he would be guaranteed a seat in the next Duma for himself and in all likelihood up to 50 seats for the party as well. As long as he did not criticise the tandem and the system and took some Kremlin favourites on to his party list, then he could cut a political career for himself. The pact, however, soon fell apart in a spectacular manner.

‘Right Cause’: a project party

In the final months before the December 2007 parliamentary elections the Union of Right Forces (SPS), the liberal core of what would become ‘Right Cause’, had adopted an increasingly critical stance towards the Kremlin. Apparently the party believed that it had a deal with the Kremlin, which meant that in return for pulling its political punches, it would be given a free pass to enter the Fifth Duma (having failed to enter the Fourth in December 2003). In September 2007, however, any such understanding was clearly torn up as the then president, Vladimir Putin, turned on the party, notably attacking its finances, largely provided by Anatoly Chubais at the head of the electricity monopoly, RAO EES [United Energy Systems]. The party won less than 3 per cent of the vote in the December elections, and thus according to the 2005 election law the party had to repay the free television airtime during the campaign, leaving it with debts of R159 million ($8 million) that had to reimbursed within a year. The SPS was not forgiven its attacks on the Kremlin during the election, and when the party condemned Russia’s incursion into Georgia during the five-day war of August 2008, it was relegated even further to the category of a ‘fifth column’. The godfather of the party, Chubais, was open about his desire to transform the party into a liberal pro-Kremlin organisation. At the same time, and probably not coincidentally, Chubais in late September was appointed head ofRosnano [Russian Corporation of Nanotechnologies], having completed the transformation of the electricity industry. Leonid Gozman, a Chubais ally, took over as interim leader on a platform of cooperation with the regime.

On 3 October plans were announced for the party to merge with the two small liberal groupings, Vladimir Bogdanov’s Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) and Mikhail Barshchevsky’s Civil Force. Bogdanov had taken over the DPR to prevent the former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, using it as a vehicle to return to politics. All three parties dissolved and created a new organisation. The aim of the new configuration was to attract ‘an intelligentsia loyal to the Kremlin’,[1] while at the same time filling the political vacuum in the liberal part of the political spectrum.

"The political managers in the Kremlin had a clear agenda in trying to revive the fortunes of ‘Right Cause’. With support for United Russia and the political leadership declining, and the obviously weakened condition of the political system, the intention was to ensure the presence of a ‘liberal’ party in the Sixth Duma to be elected on 4 December 2011."

On 15 November, against the advice of the veteran liberal leader Boris Nemtsov, SPS voted by 97-11 to disband and the next day, with the two other bodies, joined the new party, ‘Right Cause’, headed by Gozman, the journalist Georgi Bovt, and Boris Titov, the head of the business group Delovaya Rossiya.[2] Once again, as in 1999 when SPS had been created, the Kremlin sponsored the creation of a ‘project’ party, whose chances of entering the Duma in 2011 were high if support was maintained. ‘Right Cause’ may well have been a Kremlin project, but it sought to retain some policy and programmatic independence. However, its dysfunctional leadership structure left it with barely one per cent support rating in the polls as the country entered the 2011-12 electoral cycle.

For this reason in spring 2011 a new leader was sought. Prokhorov, however, turned out to be not the man the Kremlin needed. Both sides miscalculated. Prokhorov was found deeply wanting as a political leader in a number of respects. First, as a manager he treated ‘Right Cause’ as little more than a branch of an industrial enterprise, scorning the old generation of party cadres. Many from the old SPS had spent a decade fighting for the party in the regions and at the centre, and they now found newcomers parachuted in who showed nothing but contempt for the old guard. A group of Ukrainian ‘political technologists’ once again demonstrated the same skills that had been applied in support of Viktor Yanukovych in autumn 2004. Prokhorov’s dictatorial style was at odds with the liberal principles espoused by the party, and soon alienated regional leaders and top officials.

‘We have a puppeteer in the country, who long ago privatised the political system and who for a long time has disinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system, who pressures the media, places people [in the media] and tries to manipulate public opinion’.

Mikhail Prokhorov

Second, the initial election platform issued by Prokhorov was a hopelessly inadequate document, released in haste and consisting of little more than populist banalities with an emerging nationalistic edge. Not surprisingly, the party’s popularity rating by September had barely doubled. Third, and following from the previous point, Prokhorov began to shift the policy terrain on which ‘Right Cause’ stood towards a more aggressive nationalism and neo-liberal fundamentalism, bewildering the traditional liberal electorate and alienating those who sought a more ‘compassionate’ social face to the party that had been advanced by SPS in its final days. Prokhorov began to poach traditional ‘United Russia’ voters accompanied by criticism of the government, even though he was at pains to stress that he was not an opposition figure. Fourth, and most fundamentally, Prokhorov over-estimated his freedom of manoeuvre from the authorities. This sin was compounded by his brusque refusal to explain the logic of his actions, not only to his own colleagues but also to those who had promoted him to the leadership.

Downfall

This provoked the crisis of September 2011. The formal reason for the clash was Prokhorov’s intention to include Evgeny Roizman, the leader of the Ekaterinburg-based ‘City Without Drugs’ fund, on ‘Right Cause’s’ candidate list for the elections. The Kremlin had long declared that those with a criminal past were not to be nominated for the Duma, and thus Roizman had been dropped from ‘Just Russia’s’ election list in 2007.

Roizman

Yevgeny Roizman is a former MP, businessman and anti-drugs campaigner from Yekaterinburg. The Kremlin's refusal to endorse his "Right Cause" candidature was ostensibly the reason why Prokhorov lost his job as head of the party.

Once again, Vladislav Surkov (the first deputy head of the administration responsible for the management of political affairs) demanded that Roizman, who as a young man spent two years in a penal colony after he was convicted in 1981 for theft, swindling and possession of  a firearm,  be dropped from the list. Surkov reportedly issued an ultimatum: ‘Either him or you’.[3] Prokhorov refused, citing his public commitment to Roizman on which he felt he could not renege. Instead of taking the nuclear option and dismissing Prokhorov, Roizman could simply have been voted down at the party congress, but by then the Kremlin’s patience had been exhausted.

On 14 September, the first day of the ‘Right Cause’ party conference, Prokhorov’s opponents, apparently at the behest of the Kremlin, seized control of the party. By a vote of 75 to nil with two abstentions, Prokhorov was dismissed as party leader. The putsch against Prokhorov was led by Bogdanov, who had won 1.3% of the ballot in his 2008 presidential run, which represented fewer votes than the two million alleged supporters who had signed up to support his nomination. The co-conspirator was the lawyer Andrei Dunayev, the head the Moscow party organisation. Both had clearly been incited to oust Prokhorov by Surkov, working through his deputy responsible for party management, Radi Khabirov. The mutiny provoked Prokhorov to leave the party, but he did not go quietly. ‘I personally call on those who back me to leave that puppet Kremlin party’, Prokhorov told his supporters at a hastily convened breakaway party conference at the Russian Academy of Sciences. On 15 September Prokhorov resigned and launched a tirade against Surkov, but was careful not to criticise either Medvedev or Putin: ‘We have a puppeteer in the country, who long ago privatised the political system and who for a long time has disinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system, who pressures the media, places people [in the media] and tries to manipulate public opinion’. In return, as if to prove Prokhorov’s point, he not only disappeared from the television screens and joined the category of non-persons, like Nemtsov, Kasyanov and others who had fallen foul of the Kremlin, but also became the object of character assassination. Fears were voiced that the retribution would not stop there, and that he would become another Mikhail Khodorovsky – the subject of a political trial to demonstrate the futility of revolting against the regime.

President Dmitry Medvedev had earlier demonstratively supported Prokhorov, meeting him a few days after his assumption of the party leadership in a televised encounter. The view was encouraged that ‘Right Cause’ reflected his own views, to the degree that it was rumoured that Medvedev could even head the party one day. However, it was clear that a few months later Medvedev was thoroughly disappointed in Prokhorov’s leadership. ‘United Russia’, moreover, had always disapproved of this threat to its own hegemonic position, and this disapproval turned to concern when Prokhorov sought openly to attract some UR’s electorate. By jettisoning Prokhorov now, Medvedev consolidated his support in UR and reinforced his position in the party, which allowed him to go on to head its candidate list in the December election. However, the system as a whole had been discredited by the affair.

Political implications

The whole Prokhorov affair represented a political debacle of the first order for the Kremlin. Its competency in managing political matters was brought into question. Did they have no idea of Prokhorov’s character? The speed with which the whole Prokhorov affair unravelled could only reflect badly on the Kremlin. If ‘Right Cause’ was indeed little more than a Kremlin project, then a new leader should have been put in place far earlier, and only after considerably more vetting. The high-handedness with which Surkov managed political affairs now rebounded on to the Kremlin. Russian political life was not quite so malleable as he liked to believe; and his competence in managing the process was shown to have been exaggerated. Once the mechanisms of political management were revealed, they were rendered vulnerable. The whole Prokhorov affair is a classic case of hubris, and the collapse of the ‘Right Cause’ project threatened the Kremlin’s plans for the election as a whole.

Already ‘Just Russia’ (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) had been gutted by Sergei Mironov’s downfall and dismissal as head of the Federation Council, depriving it of administrative and political support. It increasingly looked as if ‘Just Russia’ would not be able to cross the 7% representation threshold in December. This would leave just three parties represented in parliament: United Russia, ‘the party of thieves and crooks’ as Alexei Navalny (the anti-corruption crusader) had so memorably characterised it; the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF), a tired yet relatively independent political force under its dour veteran leader, Gennady Zyuganov, with very few ideas on how to transform Russia into a dynamic, open, and modern society; and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) under the fading star of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, posing as an independent party yet acutely sensing the limits of its own autonomy. Such a Duma would hardly be able to lead Medvedev’s modernisation agenda, hence his attempts to bring in new blood in the form of the liberal ‘Right Cause’.

"The whole Prokhorov affair represented a political debacle of the first order for the Kremlin. Its competency in managing political matters was brought into question. Did they have no idea of Prokhorov’s character? The speed with which the whole Prokhorov affair unravelled could only reflect badly on the Kremlin."

Earlier in the year attempts by the Party of People’s Freedom (Parnas), headed by the political veterans Kasyanov, Vladimir Milov, Nemtsov and Vladimir Ryzhkov, to register had been blocked, leaving them outside the terrain of electoral competition. ‘Right Cause’s’ implosion left only the stoutly independent Yabloko in the field. Grigory Yavlinsky was now back on active duty to lead the party list in the Duma elections, yet the party was unmanageable and thus considered unsuitable by the Kremlin. A moribund parliament, even with some Popular Front nominees, will greatly inhibit any plans for greater innovation and competitiveness.


[1] Jonas Bernstein, ‘Chubais Reportedly Behind Kremlin Bid to Tame Over SPS’, Eurasian Daily Monitor, Vol. 5, Issue 186, 29 September 2008.

[2] Francesca Mereu, ‘Liberals Form Party with State Support’, Moscow Times, 17 November 2008.

[3] Eugene Ivanov, ‘Knocked off the Right Cause’, Russia Beyond the Headlines, 19 September 2011; in JRL, 2011: 167/15.

 


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