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Prokhorov – Pawn or King?

As is all too often the case in the sphere of Russian politics, in order to understand the reality of seemingly organic shifts in the political landscape we must scrutinize its seamy side, which is mapped out in the shadowy corridors of the Kremlin.  Take Mikhail Prokhorov’s announcement yesterday that he would be running for President.  Stooge! promptly cried a chorus of opposition voices, who suggested his decision was a Kremlin-backed attempt to glean protest votes and reinforce the legitimacy of the presidential elections.  But has the tycoon smoothed things over with ‘puppet master’ Vladislav Surkov, at whom he directed verbal daggers a few months back following the Right Cause debacle?  Time’s Simon Shuster, who has today published an article on the subject, suggests this may well be the case:

But shouldn’t the opposition be glad that Putin will at least face some competition? Not quite. In the elaborate puppet show that is the Russian political system, it is often impossible to keep track of all the strings, but the reigning assumption is that most of them lead back to the Kremlin. So it was not surprising that on Monday Prokhorov was immediately accused of acting in the interests of the government. “He is motivated by one aim — to preserve the Putin regime in our country,” said Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who has rallied the antigovernment protests in the past week.

This claim is routinely made against nearly all of Russia’s opposition figures (including Nemtsov himself) but it seems to hold up particularly well in the case of Prokhorov. This summer, by his own admission, Prokhorov was already involved in a Kremlin puppet political party, Pravoe Delo (Right Cause), which was established to absorb the votes of small businessmen. Prokhorov led the party from June to September, until he was ousted for disobeying orders from the Kremlin’s chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov. Still bitter and humiliated, Prokhorov then pulled back the curtain of the Kremlin’s political show, calling Surkov a “puppet master” who had long ago “privatized” the democratic process. “I am not willing to take part in this farce,” Prokhorov said at the time.

But when he was asked at Monday’s press conference how he planned to deal with Surkov in the course of his campaign, Prokhorov answered, “I plan to become his boss.” State television, whose coverage Surkov dictates on behalf of the Kremlin, then gave the press conference ample airtime, further fueling the conspiracy theory that this was all a Kremlin ruse. Many commentators pointed out that Surkov himself, less than a week before Prokhorov made his grand announcement, said in an interview that Russia desperately needed “a mass liberal party. Or, to put it more precisely, a party of the annoyed urban communities.” He added: “In order to preserve the system and allow it to develop, it has to be opened up. New players need to be allowed in. You can’t keep playing with just one figure.” As if by design, the vision of the “puppet master” has now been acted out. According to this line of thinking, when Putin goes to the polls, he will face a convenient challenger, whose presence will restore much of the legitimacy Russian elections have lost. That is, of course, if Russian voters fall for it.

Nonetheless, some have argued that it may be too early to tell whether Prokhorov has slotted quite so easily back into the grand game plan to preserve the Putinocracy, as certain analysts quoted by RFE/RL suggest:

Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the Panorama Center, says that the ease with which Prokhorov’s campaign develops will indicate whether he is indeed a “Kremlin project.”

“We can’t say for certain yet. It all depends on whether he manages to register. If they register him, then it was definitely sanctioned by Surkov, and Surkov is carrying out Putin’s will,” Pribylovsky says. “Surkov gives counsel and Putin either approves it or not. There just isn’t enough information yet. This check will tell us.”

Dmitry Orlov, the director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, disagrees that it’s a project with Surkov’s backing, because Prokhorov and Surkov “have a very bad personal relationship.” He also says that Prokhorov clearly has political ambitions and could get as much as 10 percent in the election “if his campaign goes well.”

“If he’s competing after agreeing with the Kremlin, then it is hopeless,” says Leonid Gozman, a former Right Cause official and backer of Prokhorov. “Trying to deceive society won’t work. I really hope that Mikhail Dmitriyevich [Prokhorov] is not going to make the same mistake twice. But he will be able to?”