Mikhail Prokhorov: Between the Kremlin and the Opposition

Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest men, is actively developing his recently created party, Civic Platform. Prokhorov has the resources, personnel, influence and contacts that will, at the very least, attract considerable attention to his project. Political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya ponders whether Prokhorov is a businessman who decided to ride the wave of growing civic activism, a true fighter against the regime, or simply a Kremlin puppet.

Mikhail Prokhorov may be a unique representative of the Russian elite who combines the three above-mentioned motivations. It should be added that these different elements of his identity manifest themselves at different times. This gives him and his political undertakings more flexibility and therefore a greater chance of success.

Prokhorov’s political career began in 2011 with a failure. The Kremlin invited him to participate in the re-launch of Right Cause party. The inner circle of then-President Dmitri Medvedev seriously considered supporting a center-right force that would become their ally in the December 2011 parliamentary elections. The regime’s logic was clear. First of all, Medvedev had been trying for three years to push liberal policies without any real support from Parliament; the president’s circle dreamt of a second term for him (and seriously counted on that).  Secondly, there was noticeable turmoil among the elites—many hoped for deeper systemic changes within the regime. Government bodies were being carefully purged of Putin’s secret service people. The rhetoric had changed, and rather friendly relations with the US had been reestablished. The demand for a center-right party within the system existed in the government, among the elite and in society. Thirdly, Medvedev’s people hoped that this party would be a moderate and constructive opposition but at the same time be totally under the regime’s control.

There were several candidates for the role of this project’s leader, including then-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov and several businessmen including Prokohorov.  Kudrin was under consideration because Medvedev saw this as a way to get rid of his opponent within the government, and did not take the bait.  Shuvalov also refused to go along because he thought the project too “raw” and risky. Prokhorov was the only one who showed interest because he saw it as a chance to try something new.  Prokhorov’s initial acceptability to the government is easily explained: as one of those arrested in Courchevel during a much publicized raid on organized prostitution and as one of the richest men in the country, Prokhorov would certainly irritate Russia’s conformist majority.

The honeymoon with Prokhorov did not last long, and the Kremlin shut the project down. The regime and Prokhorov interpreted the project’s objectives differently: the latter allowed himself much more freedom of action than then-Deputy Kremlin Chief-of-Staff Vladislav Surkov could tolerate. Surkov, who was responsible for producing a high voting result for United Russia in the 2011 parliamentary elections, was not enthusiastic about the emergence of Right Cause with Prokhorov at its head. Prokhorov and Surkov could not agree on Right Cause’s list of candidates for the Duma: the businessman insisted on including such “allergens” for the regime as Yevgeny Roizman, founder of the City Without Drugs organization, while Surkov demanded that he be removed from the list. Prokhorov wanted to create a relatively independent effort, but the Kremlin had strong memories of its the bad experience it had with Rodina (Motherland) bloc led by Dmitri Rogozin. Rogozin’s desire for greater political autonomy resulted in a sharp break with the regime in 2005.  For a time thereafter, Rogozin was barred from any political position. After making his peace with the system, he was rewarded with the position of Russia’s envoy to NATO, and, later, with the post of deputy prime minister in charge of the military-industrial complex.

As one of those arrested in Courchevel during a prostitution raid and as one of the richest men in the country, Prokhorov would certainly irritate Russia’s conformist majority.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s attitude toward the Right Cause initiative differed from that of President Dmitri Medvedev’s—and this also contributed to the project’s failure. For Medvedev, it was a political necessity; for Putin, a secondary project with no obvious benefits. As the leader of United Russia, Putin was interested in his party’s obtaining the maximum result in the parliamentary elections—especially as it was becoming clear that United Russia was likely to lose its two-thirds majority in the lower house (which, in fact,  happened.) Having entered into a conflict with Prokhorov over the list of candidates, Medvedev himself became disenchanted with his “center-right party” game.

Prokhorov’s confrontational method of party building was another reason for Right Cause’s failure. The businessman quarreled with the party’s core and attempted to purge its regional branches. This antagonized party activists, which, in turn, prevented him from building harmonious relations between the two “camps” within the party: the pro-Kremlin “managers” such as Andrei Dunayev, the Ryavkin brothers and Andrei Bogdanov on one side, and remnants of the defunct Union of Rightist Forces opposition party, such as Boris Nadezhdin and Grigory Tomchin on the other.

As a result of his attempting to outplay the various competing groups within the party and in the Kremlin, Prokhorov found himself immediately sidelined. On September 15, 2011, the Kremlin organized an alternative convention of Right Cause in Moscow’s International Trade Center.  There Prokhorov’s opponents voted to dismiss him as party leader and to replace him with Andrei Dunayev. Prokhorov, Roizman and TV anchor Alexander Lyubimov left the party, but promised to stay in politics. That was the unsuccessful end of Mikhail Prokhorov’s first political experience.

This, however, proved useful: having started as leader of a Kremlin project, Prokhorov turned into an opposition figure ready to combat the administration’s excessive control. He publicly attacked Surkov by calling him a “puppeteer” and criticized the Kremlin for trying to control civic activity. Judging by Prokhorov’s statements at the time, he overestimated the support he had from the Russian authorities: although he counted on it, at the same time he found it a burden.

It is safe to say that Mikhail Prokhorov has opposition potential. However, he is in no hurry to use it, keeping open the option of quickly adapting to a new political reality and turning from opposition member back into the regime’s ally, who does whatever is asked of him.  This first became obvious in late 2011, when the atmosphere in the country had drastically changed. Vladimir Putin was getting ready to return to the presidency, and the regime’s party had received a majority in the new Duma, which led to unprecedented mass protests against election fraud. The system was having a hard time returning to the route it had followed prior to 2008. After some hesitation (including two attempts to address opposition gatherings), Prokhorov once again opted for cooperation with the government.

 

Mikhail Prokhorov (right) has agreed to abide by the political rules set by Vladimir Putin.

 

A new phase in Prokhorov’s political career was marked by his participation in the 2012 presidential elections, which would have been impossible without the Kremlin’s authorization. Prokhorov quickly abandoned the idea of putting forward a program in opposition to that of Putin’s. In December 2011, the businessman proposed making Putin acting president (in other words, he called on Medvedev to resign,) stating that the then-prime minister was the only worthy political leader in the country. “Whether one likes it or not, Putin is now the only person who can manage this ineffective state machine,” Prokhorov wrote in his blog.

Observers still argue about Prokhorov’s motives. Rumor has it that he bore Medvedev a grudge for allegedly giving the order to “do in” Right Cause, and that he placed his bets on the winner. According to other sources, Prokhorov was promised the premiership—another example of the Kremlin’s successful tactic of playing on its wards’ resentments. Yet another version says that he was promised a green light in politics if he behaved in a constructive way by channeling the votes of the “infuriated middle class” into his candidacy while not criticizing Putin personally. Prokhorov got 8 percent of the vote in the 2012 election, which could be considered something of a success (although he may not agree with that). He received neither the premiership nor any other “carrots” from the regime.

Today, we are observing the third phase in the businessman’s political career. This phase can be considered the quintessence of the first two. Prokhorov tries to play the role of the constructive opposition, realizing all too well the advantages and disadvantages of both cooperation and confrontation with the Kremlin. He formed his own party, Civic Platform—and that decision was not an easy one for him. At first, it was a minimalist project, a mere brand that could be developed into a full-grown party under favorable political circumstances. However, in October, Prokhorov decided to hold a full-blown party convention, with rather drastic political reforms listed in the party program. Civic Platform’s federal committee includes former LDPR lawmaker Rifat Shaikhutdinov, FSB Colonel Sergei Militsky, League of Voters lawyer Ksenia Zelentsova, TV anchor Alexander Lyubimov, Perm regional legislator Dmitri Orlov, former Labor Minister Alexander Pochinok, Kaliningrad regional lawmaker Solomon Ginzburg, Primorsky Region Water-Motor Sports Federation President Yuri Riabko, former Ivanovo Duma Speaker Andrei Nazarov, and Siberian Modern Art Center Director Anna Tereshkova. The committee has no representatives from the radical opposition, though regional opposition “stars” are present. Ginzburg, for example, supported the January 2010 rally in Kaliningrad, which, to date, has been the largest regional protest in Russia.

Prokhorov will be allowed to busy himself with his project until it begins threatening the strategic interests of the regime.

Mikhail Prokhorov intends to concentrate on regional election campaigns. Civic Platform will nominate a gubernatorial candidate in the Vladimir region, where incumbent Communist Governor Nikolai Vinogradov is about to resign. Prokhorov’s candidate is 36-year-old Alexander Filippov, CEO of OOO UK “MRG-Invest” that manages OOO “Vladimirskaya energosbytovaya kompania” and OOO “Vladimirteplogaz”, which sells two-thirds of the electricity and almost 50 percent of the heating in the region. Prokhorov affirms that his party will field candidates in regions where it will have strong local leaders. Rumor has it that Prokhorov is in talks about a possible coalition with former Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, who could take part in next year’s Moscow City Duma elections.

The Kremlin views Mikhail Prokhorov as a peripheral figure. The presidential administration has one priority: no one should get in the way of the regime’s party and threaten the “national leader’s” poll standings. This is why Prokhorov has only one niche—that of a constructive liberal opposition that does not seek large electoral support on the federal level. At the same time, Prokhorov will try to establish himself as a federal “curator” for regional opposition leaders. He is looking for young charismatic representatives of regional elites who are ready to compete with United Russia, but respect the strict rules of the political game.

The leader of Civic Platform embodies the “elite opposition,” which also includes former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin. Only one thing can be said with any certainty now: the Kremlin does not need a center-right party, and Prokhorov will be allowed to busy himself with his “regional” project until it begins threatening the strategic interests of the regime’s power vertical. Mikhail Prokhorov has accepted these conditions.

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