Role Player: Prokhorov Candidacy a Ploy To Aid Putin?

Did Bill Clinton defeat George H. W. Bush for reelection in 1992, or was it H. Ross Perot? Many would say that by splitting the vote in opposition to Clinton, Perot aided the philanderer from Arkansas mightily in defeating the incumbent.

Mikhail Dmitrievich Prokhorov (English website), owner of the New Jersey Nets, one of the five richest men in Russia and fifty richest men in the world, has announced he’ll try to be a candidate for president of Russia in March 2012. (In an earth-shaking scoop, the Washington Post reported that Nets players and coaches strongly endorsed his candidacy.)

Just a few months ago, Prokhorov announced he would lead the Right Cause party in the December 2011 parliamentary elections. He claimed he would use his wealth to force the Kremlin to adopt democratic reforms and become more transparent. But long before the elections rolled around, Prokhorov had buckled under Kremlin pressure and withdrawn from the party. On election day, Right Cause polled less than 400,000 votes and did not secure a single seat in the new parliament.

That’s why one says “try to be a candidate” where Russia is concerned. The last major figure to seek to challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency was former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. But when he presented his roll of 2 million petition signatures, the Putin regime simply invalidated them and excluded him from the ballot. He then found himself faced with all manner of tax problems, and he disappeared into the background.

This treatment harkens back to the first man to challenge Putin for power, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested and sent to prison in Siberia just for mentioning that he might like to be president one day. The fact that Khodorkovsky went to prison for an extended stretch is a strong indicator of how different he is from most “oligarchs” (as such folks are known in Russia). He would not back down and he could not be bought off, so prison was the only alternative -- but for the Anna Politkovskaya solution.

But it’s doubtful that Prokhorov’s action has any intention of undermining the incumbent. To the contrary, Perot-like, it seems perfectly designed to obliterate the chances of Putin’s opposition.

Many would speculate that an oligarch like Prokhorov, long thought of as being in the Kremlin’s pocket, could have only two reasons for appearing to challenge its authority: either he is looking to collect bargaining chips he can use to further increase his wealth by handing them over to the Kremlin on demand, or he is actually working hand-in-glove with the Kremlin to create a Potemkin democracy that will help blunt Western criticism. Since Prokhorov backed down over the summer, it seemed the former explanation applied to him. But maybe he has now been brought to heel.

Prokhorov has a colorful past. He was accused by French authorities of pimping prostitutes at a 2007 Christmas party in Courchevel, though the case was later dismissed. Like Putin, he is a fervent practitioner of the martial arts. A bachelor, he’s surely one of the most eligible men on the planet. And, oh yes, he once fired an editor of the Izvestia newspaper, which he owns, for being too critical of Vladimir Putin in regard to the Beslan hostage crisis.

Then there’s the money. Like most oligarchs, at an astoundingly young age he parlayed a low-level position at a financial institution into control over a large chunk of Russia’s natural resources as if by magic. With Khodorkovsky it was oil; with Prokhorov, metals. One minute a clerk, the next a multi-billionaire was a rather common story during the freewheeling 1990s as Soviet assets were dispersed to the private sector at breakneck speed, Boris Yeltsin believing that otherwise Soviet recidivism might set in. And the only ones to have been prosecuted for their transgressions are the ones on the wrong side of Vladimir Putin.

Calling it “probably the most serious decision in my life,” Prokhorov announced he would create yet another new political party in connection with his Kremlin bid, and would spend no more than 10% of his campaign criticizing his chief opponent, Putin. Instead, he claimed, he’d focus on his positive plans to build a magnificent new Russia. Just days before, however, he had written the following on his blog in response to the first wave of public protests against the shameless rigged elections that repudiated his former party:

Whether they [Russian people] like it or not, Putin is so far the only figure who can manage this inefficient state machine.

Andrei Dunayev, head of Right Cause, stated:

I would sincerely like to believe that he came to this decision on his own. If we can be sure about this, we will definitely support him.

Indeed, however, we cannot be sure. And even if it were Prokhorov’s own decision, we cannot be sure of his motivations -- or rather, we can be sure that he is motivated only by his own personal gain. Boris Nemtsov, perhaps the most credible opposition figure in Russia these days (though surely not the most popular), was far more blunt than Dunayev. He stated:

He is lying to you! Oligarchs who do not make deals with Putin go to jail in Russia. The crucial difference between Prokhorov and us, the independent opposition, is that we want to relieve Russia from Putin’s regime. Prokhorov wants to improve his career. Prokhorov’s role in the game would be to get some of the liberal electorate off the streets. But he is walking on thin ice. Those who call Putin a thief will immediately recognize Prokhorov’s decision as a betrayal.

He added:

Prokhorov's task is to accumulate the protest votes and help Putin get elected.

Sergei Markov, one of the Kremlin's key political operatives, agreed. He stated:

This will only work in Putin's favor. His chances of becoming president are zero. More than anything else, the citizens of Russia hate the oligarchs, who robbed the country blind in the 1990s, and Mikhail Prokhorov is the quintessential oligarch.

So the only way Prokhorov’s announcement could be significant for Russia would be if Russia’s intelligentsia reacts to it the same way they did to the shameless rigging of the recent parliamentary elections -- by feeling deeply insulted. If that happens, maybe the recent spate of street demonstrations in Moscow, feeble and disorganized but the most energetic Russia has seen since the fall of the USSR, will grow and spread. Maybe the people of Russia will identify a real candidate, like Nemtsov, and demand that he appear on the ballot. The Kremlin wouldn’t allow that, but maybe the denial would cause even greater public furor. That might force Putin to appoint a prime minister who isn’t a flunkie, someone who would actually seek to push back the worst of Putin’s anti-democratic excesses.

It’s not much to hope for, but in Putinland it may be the best Russia can do.