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Analysis & Opinion
25.05.11 Oligarch Turned Public Servant
By Andrew Roth

While big business will always have an effect on politics, several Russian oligarchs have made waves recently by saying they would temporarily cede management or even divest themselves of their companies and represent Kremlin initiatives in the upcoming elections. The Kremlin drew a clear line in the sand with the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case and scared off many oligarchs from even appearing politically motivated, but this trend may be coming to an end.

While the road to the anointing of Russia’s next president meanders onward, Russia’s pocket opposition parties are actively being hacked-up and rebuilt in the run-up to Russia’s parliamentary and presidential elections. As United Russia deputies effectively scuttled the political career of Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the richest men in the country and an ally of the Kremlin, has agreed to head the pro-business and pocket opposition Right Cause (Pravoe Delo) party, where he has been welcomed by the party’s current leaders. Prokhorov has since promised to leave the running of his companies to his management, saying “I will only be involved in politics,” RIA Novosti reported today.

Prokhorov’s promises of fidelity to his future civic duty strike a chord with media magnate Alexander Lebedev, who made a surprise statement that he would be divesting himself of his diverse holdings and entering Putin’s National People’s Front, complaining: “In the present climate doing any business here [Russia] is completely beyond any rationale, you have to be insane, really,” the Financial Times reported. Lebedev’s media holdings include Novaya Gazeta, one of Russia’s most important independent newspapers, begging the question of what a financier of oppositionist thought might be doing sidling up to Putin’s new political initiative. Commentators saw it as a possible attempt to protect himself and his property, especially considering harassment he has faced at the hands of the FSB in the past.

Further, the president of Norilsk Nickel, Andrei Klishas, stated his intentions to leave his post and run for the State Duma in the Krasnoyarsk Region on United Russia’s ticket, establishing what seems to be a growing trend – wealthy Russian oligarchs and businessmen are making their way into the political scene in the run-up to 2012.

In the past, politics has been seen as the third rail for Russia’s super-rich. The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands out as a clear example of what happens when oligarchs overstep their bounds in the public arena. That case set a strong precedent, and for a long time oligarchs were wary of crossing the line with the Kremlin and ending up in jail or in exile.

The current reality might be changing, but only as long as these businessmen effectively end up in the Kremlin’s pocket. Right Cause is hardly an opposition movement, and Prokhorov is no Khodorkovsky. Despite statements that have been critical of the regime in the past, nor is Lebedev, who seems to have given up on his role as a critic of the Kremlin. “They said that anybody can join and I’ve noticed that they said they will fight corruption. Since I think every other institution failed in this country, why not offer my good offices to them?” Lebedev told the Financial Times.

What remains unclear is how the Kremlin has motivated Prokhorov’s and Lebedev’s mid-career crises. Olga Mefodyeva, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, said that many business leaders realistically see a partnership with the Kremlin as mutually beneficial, as the Kremlin has realized that it needs closer ties with business leaders since the financial crisis. “Prokhorov is maneuvering through the situation. The Kremlin needs a rightist party, and he understands that he can accept an offer to head it and hopefully increase his own effect on public politics,” she said. Responding to whether there may have been some sort of coercion on the part of the regime, she noted Prokhorov’s close ties to the Kremlin, saying that it was unlikely he would have faced some sort of backlash if he had refused.

Presupposing an inherent link between the cases may also be premature. Prokhorov and Lebedev come from different sectors of business and have different histories with the Kremlin, said Alexei Mukhin, the head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information. “Mikhail Prokhorov and Alexander Lebedev are going into politics for different reasons,” said Mukhin. “I think that for Lebedev, this is a political performance that he thought up himself and in which he is playing the key role. Prokhorov is simply fulfilling a command from the Kremlin.”

Nonetheless, whether by hook or by crook, the Kremlin has enlisted some powerful figures in its day-to-day politics. The gains are clear for the regime, where a crisis of confidence in United Russia and the lackluster National People’s Front have agitated the need for resources and new faces. Business leaders, in turn, noted Mukhin, would always take the opportunity to enter politics when conditions are ripe. “At certain times there were periods of self-restraint, when the oligarchs became large owners answerable to society and expressly did not take part in politics. Right now the regime has weakened and these owners have gone back into politics. Carefully, for the time being, and with an eye to the Kremlin, but they’ve gone in.”
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