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Prokhorov, Man of Mystery

Even though they call it “managed democracy,” it’s more like managed expectations.  As more and more people are getting sick of the tandem, it can be easy to find political intrigue in the most meaningless details of Russia’s long electoral season.  Case in point, businessmen and newly appointed head of the Pravoe Delo (Right Cause) Party Mikhail Prokhorov has been on a tear lately, holding explosive press conferences, challenging his own party members, and, if you are to believe the buzz, testing the limits of his range of action in the upcoming election to become Russia’s next premier (he has already said he won’t try for the presidency).

Prokhorov displays an unusual confidence in discussing taboo but important ideas (praising Georgia’s police reform, discarding the ruble as a reserve currency), and has shown a mastery of the media (probably the most brilliant PR move was to buy an ownership stake in the NBA team New Jersey Nets, as all the New York papers endlessly cover every word he says).  But Prok’s most recent big moves raise questions as to what degree his candidacy was centrally planned as an imitation of competition, and how much of it he is guiding himself.  There was a confusing incident in which hundreds of billboards commissioned by Prokhorov were torn down in various cities across Russia, under the argument that the ads violated election rules which prohibits campaigning before a certain date.  In a number of speeches, Prokhorov has put forward bold and controversial ideas, but always circumspect with regard to the rules of the game.  As the Times writes, “he does not hesitate to attack the ruling party or call for restoration of some of the political freedoms that were rolled back under Mr. Putin, but he has not criticized Mr. Putin himself.

He has taken pro-Westernism to a whole new level by suggesting that Russia should aim to join the European Union and adopt the euro, as the beloved ruble is irrevocably tied to oil price swings.  But what really has the pundits buzzing is Prokhorov’s clashes with the nationalists, even within Pravoe Delo.  The public dispute that broke out between Prokhorov and senior party member Boris Nadezhdin concluded with the former telling him he should leave the party if he in fact sympathized with the nationalists.

So does all this add up to anything of substance, or has Prokhorov simply been placed in this position to occupy a political space that might otherwise be filled with a less controllable faction.  As journalist Julia Ioffe wrote back in June, the role of Prokhorov within managed democracy not so cut and dry:  “Right Cause is not about working inside the system, it is about being the system.”  Among the five separate state-controlled political parties, the leadership vertical has sought, not without success, to carve up the ideological spectrum and control outcomes … so why, after all that, do we still find this guy so interesting?

For a further breakdown of how this puzzle piece fits, below is our original translation of an opinion column from Polit.ru:

Chubais Yesterday, Prokhorov Today

By Mikhail Zakharov

The speech of the leader of the Right Cause party showed an odd understanding of how voters are influenced. Prokhorov laid out his ideas, which quite simply will never be on the agenda; ideas that were formulated extremely provocatively. Such a position is threatened with failure. In the pre-election season, politicians become idea-generators, usually of populist or controversial ideas. Certainly this is how Prokhorov appeared at a recent press-conference. He literally overflowed with ideas. For example, he proposed joining the Eurozone and entering into Schengen, seeing as the rouble, wedded to gas and oil prices, can never become a regional currency.

“ At the end of the day this [joining the Eurozone –Ed.] will strengthen both Russian sovereignty and the sovereignty and economic might of Western Europe. If this model is realised, it will allow a robust recovery from the systemic crisis and in the future the world will be divided into 3 powerful centres: America & Latin America; Big Europe; and China &Asian regions” stated the leader of the Right Cause party.

According to him, the concept of a Big Europe will ensure the growth of the Russian economy by 12-15% per year, and the euro will stay independent of the dollar. Competition has pushed Prokhorov into a-typicality.

“I think, that they have made some telling statements, that show the chasm between the mythology of the liberals and the real interests of our country and her people.” Said Yuri Shuvalov, of United Russia, commenting on Prokhorov’s speeches.

On this, one must agree with United Russia in terms of their [Right Cause] detachment from reality. Of course, there is no way any “Big Europe” is on the cards at least for the next 30 years. There is no certainty either, that this idea will be seriously discussed.

Apart from all that, Prokhorov has said that he would cope with the work of the Prime Minister as that work is similar to the work of a general director of a large company. For that he would need a like-minded President.

“I cannot be Prime Minister in a programme that I don’t believe in. We have a President who sets the programme according to the Constitution, therefore, if the programme that the party Right Cause offers, is shared by a large number of people, or by one person who will be President in March, then such a possibility could be examined. But, I repeat, that depends on whether there will be voter support of that programme”.

The rational thought in that statement is an implicit reminder that Medvedev has praised Prokhorov for his ideas. “Many of your ideas correspond with mine, they have a somewhat revolutionary character, they require deep thought” stated President Medvedev during a June meeting with Prokhorov.

“The most recent comments of Prokhorov show that he has a like-minded friend of the highest level”

It’s obvious to all- including Prokhorov- that he will not get the votes to become Prime Minister in the results of the next elections- regardless of whether the President is like-minded or not. The representative of government in our super-presidential republic is brought into parliament by the President and not the other way around.

To nominate a millionaire as Prime Minister would be a political turn-off for millions of voters, very few of whom will try their luck outside of what is certain. Unless of course, the results put Right Cause second only to United Russia.

Prokhorov torpedoes that possibility however, when he tries to explain how one must deposit one’s money.

“ A 2-year fund of personal expenditure can be kept in roubles, while the rest of the sum is better to be shared equally between the dollar and the euro, and is then not to be moved.” advised the millionaire.

With those kind of comments the leader of Right Cause sinks his own ship, depriving his party of votes at the elections. According to a one-year old poll by the Levada-Center, 64% of Russians don’t have savings. Only 29% do and one must suppose that its unlikely that many have “2 years’ worth” for personal use.

Prokhorov’s statements are addressed to a “high middle class” who would possess such savings. However, that’s a) an extremely narrowly focused audience for a political party seeking a parliamentary seat and b) this target group are likely to be educated and able to look after their own money, without Prokhorov’s little tips.

Even if this is pure provocation (similar to his comments for a 60hr working week), then it’s still extremely dangerous for Right cause. It’s a real chance to repeat the fate of SPS in 2003. They shot a film in which their leaders, Chubais, Nemtsov, and Khakamada flew in a plane over the country. They earned 4% of the vote and didn’t make it into parliament. Provocation from this party played its role and the result was feeling that “They’re up there, swanning about, and we’re down here not in terribly great shape.” Prokhorov really ought to quit “soaring through the clouds”.