In the wake of Mikhail Prokhorov’s political downfall and the likely death of Pravoe Delo’s chances at attracting enough votes to enter the next Duma, commentators are scrambling to make sense of what has happened. The amount of relevant material that’s exploded onto the Internet in the past two days is vast and beyond easy comprehension.
Many are calling the recent events a ‘drama’ and a ‘show,’ whereas others like Stanislav Belkovsky insist that it’s merely a typical episode in Kremlin politics. The main figures seem to be Prokhorov and Vladislav Surkov, whom Prokhorov personally accused of orchestrating the assault against Pravoe Delo. Observing (or perhaps meddling?) from the riverbanks are Medvedev and Putin, whose spokespeople have confirmed that they are aware of PD’s situation, but have so far offered no public comments.
On the periphery are the competing factions within Pravoe Delo, divided between an Old Guard that never took to Prokhorov, and a newer batch of PD members recruited by the billionaire to serve out his vision for the party. When the dust settled this morning, Prokhorov’s defeated loyalists included: Evgeny Roizman, Leonid Gozman, Alla Pugacheva, and Andrei Makarevich. Triumphantly turncoat were: Soloviev, Dorenko, and Shevchenko — ultimately joined by Boris Nadezhdin and Georgy Bovt, to boot. Leading the ‘raider takeover’ against Prokhorov, despite his Wednesday attempt to remove them from the Executive Committee, were Bogdanov, the Riavkin brothers, and Dunaev.
A trio of journalists from Nezavisimaia Gazeta brainstormed a handful of possible reasons for the collapse of Prokhorov’s political gambit. Reason One: PD’s summertime unofficial campaign effort (‘Strength Is in the Truth’) produced very little ‘bump’ for the party in opinion polling. It’s possible that Prokhorov decided to cut his losses (already amounting to nearly 800 million rubles) by engineering his own ouster.
Reason Two: As alluded to above, old party figures were never pleased with Prokhorov’s arrival or style of leadership. As many elsewhere have noted, the oligarch’s management system was ill-suited to politics, where no one but the Kremlin has true control over policy. Prokhorov brought in new people, who then operated outside PD’s traditional framework, bypassing party members who had invested years of their lives into Pravoe Delo. Regional offices were disbanded with little warning, and Prokhorov battled with local executive committees frequently.
Reason Three: Prokhorov bumbled the conflict over Roizman. “An experienced politician will never articulate the conditions of his own departure from the scene,” NezGaz writes. By issuing the Kremlin with ultimatums as a way of defending his ally, Prokhorov handed his enemies the perfect means of ending his political career. He also got his priorities wrong. Prokhorov made have discovered a new close friend in Mr. Roizman, but the country lost its most important right-wing political project.
Reason Four: Prokhorov ignored Medvedev’s August warning that parties should not include in their deputy lists anyone with “questionable reputations.” Even forgetting Roizman’s long-ago criminal record, his ‘A City Against Narcotics’ organization is notorious for employing hyper-violent methods in its struggle against the use and sale of illegal drugs. Prokhorov also chose to ignore a well-established precedent set years ago, when Roizman was forced from ‘Just Russia”s party list under similar conditions.
Reason Five: The Kremlin might have decided to allow Yabloko to return to the Duma, satisfying its need for the appearance of improved democratic access to the parliament. Grigory Yavlinksy started appearing on television again recently, apparently looking “youthful and energetic.” The West, it’s assumed, would like Yavlinksy more than Prokhorov, anyway.
Tatyana Stanovaya argues that the conflict over Roizman was merely a pretext for moving against Prokhorov. Surkov needed to settle wider issues with Pravoe Delo’s leader, and “Medvedev at a minimum did not interfere.” According to Stanovaya, the President either sanctioned Surkov’s actions, or Surkov never asked for permission. Prokhorov appears to have believed that he’d received a ‘blank check’ from Medvedev himself, allowing him to decide Pravoe Delo policy independently. Surkov, and perhaps Medvedev, did not agree.
Stanovaya suggests that the demise of Dmitri Rogozin’s ‘Rodina’ coalition compares most closely to Pravoe Delo’s current woes. When Rogozin behaved too freely in 2006, opposing Putin on something as sensitive as benefits monetization, Surkov also adopted an ‘I created you, and now I can destroy you’ attitude. (She rejects comparisons to the raider takeover of Kas’ianov’s Dempartiia Rossii, arguing that parallels don’t fit, as that party by 2006 had already become firmly non-establishment, marginal, without Kremlin resources, and generally not taken seriously.)
Belkovsky has been popping up with articles and quotes across the Russian media in the last few days, beaming with joy about the embarrassment of Prokhorov. He clearly sees Pravoe Delo’s collapse as a vindication of the oppositionist election strategy he’s been promoting for months (discussed at length in a previous AGT post). The Kremlin, Belkovsky argues, had tasked Prokhorov simply with “duping the liberal electorate” into getting off their behinds and into a voting booth to support the latest Kremlin trap. Prokhorov’s apparent sins were hiring dubious political consultants (long the subject of mockery for their ineptitude, but also notorious for dirty dealing) and encroaching on United Russia’s values.
Apparently, President Medvedev had wanted Prokhorov to include certain notable figures in the sciences and arts (to whom he had personal ties), but “the oligarch not only ignored these highest wishes, but even refused to meet with the individuals.” Belkovsky repeats the charge that Prokhorov destroyed Pravoe Delo’s regional party structure by disbanding and expelling too many groups and people, but he also alleges that the oligarch appointed “seasoned conmen with experience in United Russia and LDPR” on promises of “future sponsorship.” Elaborating, Belkovsky writes: “It’s clear that, even from the early days, the tycoon wasn’t counting on spending his own money. If anyone really loves a free lunch, it’s the oligarchs.” (This, quite curiously, contradicts the common story that Prokhorov’s political debut was a financial black-hole at a personal loss.)
Belkovsky claims that Medvedev himself ordered Surkov to force out Prokhorov from Pravoe Delo. The President simply came to understand that Prokhorov’s mismanagement was becoming a liability for him because “no small part of the establishment for some reason tied ‘Pravoe Delo’ to Medvedev’s views and to the entirety of modernization ideas.” (Arguably, the President has himself to blame for this awkward association.) According to Belkovsky, Prokhorov’s subsequent attacks on Surkov have never included criticisms of Medvedev or Putin precisely because he knows it was really Medvedev who ordered his removal. Prokhorov after all remains an establishment player, which necessitates such dishonesty and cowardice, Belkovsky concludes.
As a sort of happy epilogue, Belkovsky lists four reasons that the Pravoe Delo collapse brings him joy: (1) it proves that oligarchs owe their success not to brains or talent, but corruption and nepotism; (2) it shows “any politicians still inhabiting the Russian Federation” that any agreements with the Kremlin can be terminated unilaterally (presumably discouraging future compromises); (3) it will hopefully kill ‘Navalny’s Option’ in the oppositionist election strategy debate; and (4) it will propel Evgeny Roizman to bigger and better things. While he doesn’t endorse Roizman’s “half-terrorist” methods in anti-drugs activism, Belkovsky notes that Roizman is an “ideal compote” for the opposition’s united ticket: a Robin Hood figure, a Russian nationalist, a Jew, and a poet. (He could even be a candidate to rival Aleksei Navalny, Belkovsky’s longtime favorite for this role.) Free elections will return to Russia one day, Belkovsky warns, and people like Roizman and Navalny could matter more tomorrow than anyone today can appreciate.
I’ll conclude this post with an idea raised by political scientist Rostislav Turkovskii, quoted yesterday in Vedomosti. When Prokhorov had still only called out Radii Khabirov as a meddling Kremlin operative (before he decided to openly attack anyone as high-ranking as Surkov), Turkovskii was already suggesting that the Pravoe Delo scandal represented an “unprecedented” public exposure of Kremlin officials’ role in the country’s political life.
This concept of ‘rare and public exposures’ is a reoccurring theme in Russian political instability. The mechanics of Kremlin power — specifically the operating logic of Vladimir Putin’s authority — rests on a managed chaos, wherein different national factions compete for various kinds of institutional access to rents on the economy. In other words, they fight over wealth, legal privileges, and status. Part of what makes this ‘dogs under the carpet’ management feasible is that the general population doesn’t see it. For the average citizen to keep going to work, depositing his paychecks in the local bank, and so on, he has to have some faith in the continuity of the country’s leadership.
In Russian history, there are many examples of ‘rare and public exposures,’ occurring in varying severity. A recent accidental glimpse into the true function of Kremlin power might be the Moscow casinos scandal, exposing the ongoing war between the General Prosecutor and the Investigative Committee. Or perhaps a more recent case is the friction over cadre changes in the MVD’s economic crimes unit (the GUEBiPK, formerly the DEB).
With the 2012 succession question still undecided (at least officially), the destabilizing effect of these revelations is amplified. That is almost certainly why Russian authorities are wasting no time in rewriting accepted wisdom on Prokhorov and Pravoe Delo. Kommersant reported late on Thursday that central television channels, in the course of a single day, virtually reversed the tone of their Prokhorov coverage. By the end of Wednesday, Prokhorov was no longer referred to as PD’s leader, but simply as “a billionaire who didn’t attend the congress.” On Wednesday and Thursday, Channel One, Rossiia-1, and NTV did not so much as mention Prokhorov’s accusations of political pressure, and never named Surkov even once. By Thursday evening, TV stations had handed their microphones to Prokhorov’s enemies, Boganov, Dunaev, and Nadezhdin, who explained at length the reasons for Prokhorov’s ouster.
All of which begs the question: what will tomorrow bring?