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Analysis & Opinion
23.09.11 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: The Right Cause Party Implodes
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Alexandre Strokanov

Last week, the liberal Right Cause Party, led by billionaire-cum-politician Mikhail Prokhorov, imploded in a mega scandal that left Prokhorov publicly humiliated and expelled from the party he volunteered to lead less than four months ago. Why did Prokhorov’s party implode? Was it because Prokhorov decided to be independent from the Kremlin, or is it simply a case of too much arrogance from too big an ego that ruffled some feathers and made him some enemies within the party? What does it say about the Kremlin’s control over Russia’s politics and its players?

Prokhorov blamed Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin’s first deputy chief of staff and its overseer of domestic politics, for orchestrating a rebellion within Right Cause to oust Prokhorov over his refusal to bow to the Kremlin’s orders and his readiness to pursue an independent political line. "There is a puppet master in our country who has privatized the whole political system – Surkov. He needs to be fired. Only then we can have real politics," Prokhorov said at a meeting of his supporters in Moscow. Surkov “has long misinformed the country's leadership about what is happening in the political system, suppressed the media and created discord,” Prokhorov said. "It is my personal task to achieve Surkov's sacking," he added, saying he would ask for a meeting with President Dmitry Medvedev to discuss this.

But others questioned Prokhorov's version of events. Dissenters within the party, led by political strategist Andrei Bogdanov and party boss Andrei Dunayev, blamed the rift on Prokhorov's dictatorial leadership style and his enlistment of radical anti-drug activist and nationalist Yevgeny Roizman, who has a criminal record.

Meanwhile, former party co-leader Georgy Bovt told The Moscow Times that he "did not want to be a member of a party that is governed not by Prokhorov, but by some minions speaking on his behalf,” and “when it is impossible to put a message to Prokhorov and to approach him.”

Prokhorov hired a team of controversial Ukrainian political operatives (known for their disastrous handling of Viktor Yanukovich's campaign in 2004 and Arseniy Yatsenuk’s presidential bid in 2010) to run the party's campaign for the Duma. They quickly alienated the party's faithful by engineering ousters of regional party operatives, while putting together a populist political manifesto that was more appropriate for the Yulia Timoshenko Bloc in Ukraine than for a Russian liberal, right-of-center party.

It was widely rumored in Moscow that Medvedev gave Surkov an order to remove Prokhorov from the party leadership. Medvedev was allegedly upset with Prokhorov for not complying with the Kremlin-defined rules of the game, which never envisioned Right Cause taking a leftist, populist slant instead of the expected pro-business one. Medvedev wanted to see Prokhorov appeal to liberal middle-class voters and the liberal intelligentsia while becoming a voice for Medvedev's modernization program.

Earlier this year, Medvedev gave his personal blessing to Prokhorov's election as the leader of the Right Cause Party and initially said that he agrees with much of Prokhorov's policy proposals. It was also thought that Right Cause would become the platform for nominating Medvedev for president, were it to clear the seven percent barrier in the parliamentary elections in December. It has become an article of faith that the Kremlin wanted a liberal faction in the new Duma and would help Right Cause to clear the seven percent threshold. Prokhorov had boasted earlier that he would achieve a second-place finish for Right Cause in the Duma elections and nominate himself either for prime minister or president.

Now, having been unceremoniously kicked out from his party, Prokhorov vows to continue his career in politics and urged his supporters to form a public movement that would be later transformed into a political party. Observers, however, are skeptical of Prokhorov’s political future, even though he has gained sufficient name recognition and respect for standing up to the Kremlin.

It is also clear now that Right Cause is unlikely to do well at the polls in December and might not survive the election cycle, although it has promised to elect a new leader this week. Some even speculated that the Kremlin would parachute Dmitri Rogozin, Russia’s flamboyant Ambassador to NATO and a firebrand Russian nationalist, to lead Right Cause as an ultra-right nationalist, but not liberal, political force. This seems to be far-fetched, but given Surkov’s fondness for political cynicism, is not beyond the realm of possibilities available to the Kremlin.

The Kremlin, however, will most certainly not see a liberal, pro-business faction in the new Duma, which will diminish the legitimacy of the election results. And Medvedev will be denied another platform for having himself nominated for president independently of Putin’s United Russia (the other remaining opportunity hinges on Just Russia squeezing itself into the Duma, which it is now finding devilishly hard to do).

Why did Prokhorov’s party implode? Was it because Prokhorov decided to be independent from the Kremlin, or is it simply a case of too much arrogance from too big an ego that ruffled some feathers and made him a lot of enemies within the party? What does it say about the Kremlin’s control over Russia’s politics and its players? Is it the crowning moment for Surkov’s “managed democracy?” Does Prokhorov have a political future as an independent politician opposed to the Kremlin’s political control? Does the implosion of Right Cause foreclose the prospects for Medvedev’s independent nomination to a second presidential term? What role, if any, has Prime Minister Vladimir Putin played in the entire episode? Does the implosion of Right Cause signal the end of Russian liberalism, or would it inadvertently lead to a swell of political support for another well established liberal party in Russia – Yabloko?

Alexandre Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of the Institute of Russian Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville, VT

Why did Prokhorov’s party implode? There are obviously several reasons for it. The first is that you can’t buy everything for your money – even really big money – and Russian elections have proven this many times in the past. Most Russians do not admire ultra-rich people in politics and generally have not paid serious attention to this scandal, especially in the provinces.

Another reason is that you can’t manage a political party in the same way as you manage a private corporation; you have to learn how to listen to and persuade people rather than give them orders. Finally, when you agree with the Kremlin to lead a party that will represent a segment of the society, you do not try to compete directly with the party of power on the playing field.

Who won and who lost in this case? The major loser is Right Cause. Even if it decides to participate, it will look very bleak and unattractive to voters. The scandal further damaged the Kremlin’s reputation, its administration (read: Vladislav Surkov), and President Dmitry Medvedev. Media coverage in the West was primarily critical and did not serve to improve Russia’s or Medvedev’s image.

It is interesting how in almost every publication devoted to this saga, Prokhorov has been labeled not in the traditionally negative way as an oligarch, but as a “magnate” – the owner of a basketball team in the United States, the third richest man in Russia, etc. At the same time, the Kremlin has been blamed for too much interference in political life, control over parties and so on. In particular, the scandal backfired against Medvedev, who in previous months has often been presented as Russia’s liberal-minded and pro-democracy president in contrast to the more authoritarian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Interestingly enough, Putin has remained in the shadows throughout this story and hasn’t quite put in his two cents yet. This makes the intrigue even more interesting due to sporadic rumors that Medvedev had plans to associate himself with this party, and to be nominated by it for the next presidential elections.

Does Prokhorov have a political future? He may, if Vladimir Putin gives him his shoulder at this point (even if it happens behind the scenes). Prokhorov is an energetic and even charismatic person, and can certainly have some positive impact on Russian politics in the future. Russian politics badly need fresh blood and new faces.

The real intrigue would be if he runs against Medvedev in 2012. Russian people seem to like those who suffer from the authorities. Take the story of Boris Yeltsin and his conflict with the country's leaders: it propelled him into much more serious politics and eventually brought him to the pinnacle of power. Of course, Prokhorov is not Yelstin, who was trained in politics by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and Russia today is not the Soviet Union of 1980s. However, Prokhorov's chances for success in politics today are higher than they were in June.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

There is a wave of gratitude toward Prokhorov for the hilarity that he provided in such a typically deadpan Russian news stream. Should he ever need to, say amused observers, he can use his talent as a jester.

Prokhorov’s foray into politics appears bizarre. Consider that he was recently noted for proposing an extension of Russia’s standard workweek to 60 hours (from the classic 40) as well as raising retirement age. These ideas caused outrage; in a normal political system, someone who made such proposals would be unelectable for decades. Prokhorov, if he persists, may still experience the humiliation of having to eat those words, repeatedly.

Furthermore, very rich people in established democracies are politically chaste with their wealth. Multi-billionaires are not generally liked; those who purchase entire political parties, as if they were basketball clubs, are liked even less. Of course, Russia’s nouveaux riches are generally flamboyant in their lifestyles, so why should the very wealthy Prokhorov be politically chaste?

There is, of course, room for uncomfortable questions. How exactly did the billionaire-politician acquire his wealth? Where is that wealth located and are all due taxes paid? Has the entire fortune been repatriated, in these days of economic crisis, when all citizens are expected to pitch in and help their national economies? Will the businessman-politician divest himself of his assets when assuming high office? Will he use his money to buy elections, like he buys political parties? If elected to high office, will he use his position to advance his business interests at the expense of other very rich – yet politically unfortunate – people? Such questions are endless.

No serious political technician would use someone like Prokhorov to “create” a political vehicle. Therefore, the supposition that Prokhorov is a Kremlin plant seems like very naive speculation.

The fact that Prokhorov blames some obscure political machinations for a personal failure only supports the view that he is not mature or suitable as a political actor. His earlier claims that “his” party would gain second place in the Duma (ahead of the Communist Party, one supposes, requiring a 30 percent share of the vote) also demonstrate remarkable political frivolity.

It is commendable that Right Cause found the strength to restore its own political honor by dismissing such a pretender. It may be quaint, but integrity is even more important than winning elections. And by the way, nowhere in the world – and especially not in Russia – can a party owned by a billionaire be seriously promoted as a “party of the middle class.” A billionaire’s party is a party of and for billionaires (if they dare to trust the owner).

The spurious legend that Right Cause may be a platform for a presumed (or hoped for?) candidacy by Medvedev suggests yet another instance of fantasy. Right Cause simply does not draw enough electorate (and certainly is unlikely to win a competition) to sustain a serious presidential contender.

However, Prokhorov did not “end Russian liberalism” (or rather, Russian neo-liberalism). Russian neo-liberalism was dealt a mortal blow by the reckless behavior of Russian neo-liberals during the chaotic 1990s with hyperinflation, unemployment, unpaid salaries, the looting of the public treasury and looming sovereign default. In that decade, the neo-liberals in Russia supported programs that were irresponsibly destructive, to say the least. The electorate remembers that and, if necessary, shall be reminded by the neo-liberals’ political competitors. This is also something an experienced political operator knows. Right Cause seems to ignore this fact blissfully.
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