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Roughly eleven years ago, as Boris Yeltsin departed the Kremlin and Russia’s love affair with American culture turned sour, film director Aleksei Balabanov released a sequel to his 1997 hit “Brother.” Capturing the changing mood of the era, “Brother II” took place primarily in the United States, where the hero, Danila Bagrov (played by Sergei Bodrov), battled Ukrainian mobsters, black gangsters, and corrupt businessmen. Near the end of the film, Danila confronts the villain, an American tycoon named Mr. Menis, whom he tells about Russian truth and strength, loosely quoting Aleksandr Nevsky’s famous words “God is not in strength, but in truth”:
“Now tell me, American, what is strength? Is it really in money? Well, my brother says it’s in money. You’ve got a lot of money. And so what? I happen to think that strength is in truth, and he who has truth on his side is stronger. So you cheated someone and got a bunch of money. So what — did you become stronger? No, you didn’t. That’s because the truth isn’t on your side. Now the person you cheated — he has truth on his side, which means he’s the stronger one.”
In a strange twist, Russia’s third-richest man, Mikhail Prokhorov, recently adopted Danila’s tough talk in a new advertising campaign, “Strength is in the Truth,” designed to boost his publicity in the lead up to parliamentary elections this December. Conveniently removing any talk about money (which might remind struggling Russians that Prokhorov is worth more than twenty billion dollars), the pre-election campaign is being conducted through a technically apolitical project called “Made-in-Russia,” cofounded with Russian GQ magazine editor Ksenia Sokolova. The reason for the smoke and mirrors is ostensibly that Russian election law forbids open campaigning before the President officially calls for elections later this month. (That said, Prokhorov’s political party, Pravoe Delo, has yet to finalize its platform, so the reappropriation of movie taglines is probably near to the best he can do, for now.)
Pravoe Delo has been widely criticized in the Western media and Russian opposition press for being a Kremlin puppet intended to deceive liberal and pro-business voters. In early June, Julia Ioffe predicted that — thanks entirely to Kremlin support — Prokhorov’s party would win more seats in the next Duma than any party except United Russia. In a recent New York Times piece, Ellen Barry entertained the idea that Vladimir Putin is Prokhorov’s biggest supporter, floating a rumor that Putin could tap Pravoe Delo’s new leader to become the next Prime Minister in a 2012 return to the presidency. Vladimir Kara-Murza seized on Boris Nadezhdin’s admission that Pravoe Delo submits its candidates lists to the Kremlin for approval, declaring that this “‘democratic’ decoration” will “fool no one.”
Indeed, Pravoe Delo cooperates with the authorities. Practices like the one revealed by Nadezhdin, and the fact that truly independent parties like PARNAS are refused registration without real legal justification, are more than enough evidence to prove the ‘democratic decoration’ charge.
But to harp on the falsity of Pravoe Delo’s popular credentials is to commit the eternal oppositionist sin: emphasizing a negative. If Pravoe Delo and Mikhail Prokhorov are not the rebirth of competitive independent politics, what then are they?
Unluckily for Russians this year, identity crisis seems to be the major theme of the coming elections. Since being denied official registration, PARNAS leaders have split into different schools of thought on how best to protest the Kremlin. In the wake of Sagra and similar conflagrations, KPRF has signaled that it might compete against LDPR for the ethnic nationalist vote. In recent weeks, Pravoe Delo experienced an embarrassing scandal, when the party’s Moscow head, Boris Nadezhdin, told Izvestia that it would be courting nationalists to join the ticket, and that the party would be adding ‘the Russian Question’ to its platform. In an angry response, Prokhorov denied that his party would be welcoming nationalists into its ranks, and clarified that Pravoe Delo would not be taking up ‘the Russian Question,’ apparently threatening Nadezhdin. (In a follow-up blog post, Prokhorov explained that Russia, in his view, does not suffer from ethnic tension, but from problems with law and order and police enforcement.) While these developments clearly speak to widespread uncertainties among the official parties, the greatest explosion of self-doubt surely belongs to United Russia, whose parallel movement, “the All-Russia Popular Front,” is an unambiguous confession that the Party of Power has fallen on hard times.
Despite the haziness of the current political landscape, there are some things worth pointing out about Pravoe Delo and the significance of this ‘puppet project.’ The first thing to understand and appreciate is that Prokhorov is far from irrelevant just because his party plays a role in Kremlin machinations. On the contrary: Pravoe Delo’s part in the schemes and power struggles of the authorities is precisely what demands our attention.
So what exactly is Pravoe Delo’s role in the great game of Russian byzantine politics?
The standard answer to this question seems to be that Pravoe Delo is a lure for liberals. Tempted by a lack of alternatives, certain pro-business, pro-democracy voters will cast their ballots for Prokhorov’s candidates, foolishly validating a flawed electoral system. For observers whose only concern is the democratic merit of Russian elections, this is as far as the analysis goes. To prove the fundamental emptiness of Pravoe Delo, these people will usually cite this excerpt from Prokhorov’s June convention speech:
“We must change the psychology of our party. We must act, work, discuss, and take on the responsibilities of a professional, responsible party of power. I propose that we eliminate the word “opposition” from our lexicon. It’s been a long time since our fellow citizens considered this word to signify a political party. Instead, it’s come to mean some collection of marginal groups that long ago lost touch with reality.”
But this isn’t all that Prokhorov said in June. In fact, he went on to make several declarations that strongly echo President Medvedev’s most infamous ‘independent-sounding’ public statements. Consider the following remarks:
“Let’s ask ourselves an honest question: does Russia have a multiparty [political] system today? No, of course not. There needs to be at least two parties of power, and currently there is only one. Any political monopoly, just like any other type of monopoly — spiritual, natural, or economic — is our main opponent. Any school textbook can tell you that monopoly is the enemy of any kind of development.”
“We must acknowledge that we live now generally in a weak state, where all social ladders have been privatized by one narrow group, which gets its positions and functions in exchange for doling out favors [kormlenie] from those positions. This society cannot be competitive. In our country, there needs to emerge energetic, bright people, who won’t shy from responsibility.”
“[Our biggest problem is] the systemic degradation of our entire country. The first wave of degradation hit industry, and it’s now collapsed. What do we have now? We’re basically a raw materials appendage [to the world economy] — maybe a powerful one, but still a raw materials appendage. Now the second wave is hitting, and we’re seeing everything. It’s the most dangerous wave, degrading everything connected with the reproduction of human capital: education, healthcare, and culture.”
After his convention speech, Prokhorov promptly scored a one-on-one meeting with Medvedev, who announced approvingly, “Your ideas correspond on some points with my own views.” None of this is meant to argue that Prokhorov and Medvedev are democratic reformers — but even in a purely cynical context, ideas about degradation, political monopoly, and crumbling social ladders are a language intended to subvert the status quo and promote one’s own people to positions of power.
So how does this impact Pravoe Delo’s story?
“Strength is in the truth” — the phrase decorates hundreds of banners across Russia, introducing the Russian public to Prokhorov’s long, serious face. In a developing scandal, however, these posters have been removed or destroyed in nine different cities: Ekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, Moscow, Barnaul, Irkutsk, Novokuznetsk, Perm, Khabarovsk, and Krasnoyarsk. Prokhorov has made a loud stink about the affair, accusing the local governors of sabotaging his pre-election campaign on orders from United Russia. Observers like Ivan Yartsev, however, have pointed out that the incident has become a major publicity boost for Pravoe Delo.
The cities where Prokhorov’s trouble is occurring make for an interesting list. One of them, Ekaterinburg, is the home of Pravoe Delo’s most popular figure, Evgeny Roizman. Of the scandal-affected areas, Medvedev has personally appointed six of the nine regional heads. A seventh leader, Oleg Chirkunov of Perm, is one of Russia’s only six non-partisan governors — and rumor has it that Pravoe Delo is quietly attempting to recruit him to the party.
Is it only coincidence that nearly three-fourths of the cities involved in publicity-boosting ‘attacks’ on Prokhorov are home to stewards put in place by Medvedev?
(For further reading on the scale and nature of Medvedev’s “cadre system,” I direct readers to an excellent article recently written by Ol’ga Kryshtanovskaia.)