Mikhail Dmitrievich Prokhorov: An Unpredictable Kremlin Project

Dec 20, 2011

 By Stephen Weil
Mikhail ProkhorovMikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third wealthiest man, has made a comeback into Russian politics after his ouster from the Right Cause party earlier this year.  Many analysts believe, however, that Prokhorov's candidacy is a Kremlin-sponsored ploy designed to mollify the urban middle-class opposition.  While Prokhorov stands no chance to actually unseat Vladimir Putin, it nevertheless remainds to be seen whether or not he will adhere strictly to the Kremlin's script.  

In the aftermath of United Russia’s setback in the recent Duma elections, the political environment in Russia appears more volatile than it has been in years.  The poor showing by the ruling party, which officially received just under 50% of the votes (estimates by independent monitors put the figure as low as 35%), presented an opening for opposition forces.  The members of the urban middle class, the segment of the population most vociferously opposed to the existing political order, were quick to exploit this opening.  On December 10th, as many as 100,000 Russians gathered on Bolotnaya square to protest against electoral fraud and call for the removal of Vladimir Putin during a Kremlin-sanctioned rally.  Against the backdrop of this spreading middle class discontent, oligarch and former Right Cause party leader Mikhail Prokhorov has stepped once more into the political fray, declaring his candidacy for the March presidential elections. It is possible that Prokhorov has simply decided to take advantage of a political opening to rejuvenate his political project, but many Russian observers seem convinced that his campaign is actually a Kremlin-backed ploy designed to lure the support of urban, middle class voters away from more viable opposition candidates while simultaneously providing more competition, and thus more legitimacy, for Putin’s inevitable inauguration.  The evidence seems to stack up in favor of this more cynical view, although the potential remains for Prokhorov to stray outside of his Kremlin-approved agenda, prompting a re-run of his conflict with the authorities over Right Cause.

Prokhorov’s announcement of his next foray into Russian politics came amid peculiar circumstances.  Only two days before he called an impromptu press conference to declare his candidacy, Prokhorov reacted to the Bolotnaya protests on his blog, declaring that he was “against revolutions” and that, “Putin is for now the only one who is somehow able to control this inefficient state machine.”1   It was also telling that Prokhorov’s announcement received prime coverage from the state-run television channels, despite the fact that many reporters were only notified of the event a few hours before it began.  Furthermore, the substance (or lack thereof) of Prokhorov’s electoral platform raises even more suspicion about the oligarch’s independence from the Kremlin.  Prokhorov refrained from any direct criticism of Putin, claiming that he would instead focus his campaign on developing constructive solutions to Russia’s problems.  In his initial press conference, however, he failed to lay out any concrete agenda of “constructive solutions,” coming across instead as a man “waiting for instructions.”   After testing the political waters, Prokhorov was willing to put forth a few basic proposals that would resonate with the Bolotnaya protesters, specifically: reinstating direct elections for governors, reducing the length of the presidential term to five years, and providing registration for genuine opposition parties.   Prokhorov also declared that he would use his presidential prerogative to pardon jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a move seen as cynical gamesmanship by many, but which received at least some praise from human rights activists.   The overall response to Prokhorov’s candidacy, however, has been unenthusiastic.  His image as a “playboy” certainly undermines his credibility with the Russian public, and his center-right pro-business “agenda” makes him come across more as a system player than as an attractive opposition candidate.   Ultimately, the Russian public is suspicious of the independence of any oligarch entering politics, as any such individual would face the prospect of a government investigation of their wealth if they pushed the Kremlin too far.

Prokhorov has made an effort to challenge his image as a “Kremlin puppet,” although his attempts have thus far been unsuccessful.  Just two days after announcing his intentions to run for president, Prokhorov responded to critics on his live journal, declaring that, while his candidacy might provide an advantage for the Kremlin («кремлю я выгоден на выборах»), he was nevertheless acting independently and not as a “Kremlin project.”   While it is clear that Prokhorov has received the Kremlin’s blessing to run, there are at least some signs that he might veer from the script.  Following a scandal in the Kommersant-Vlast’ newspaper, in which the CEO and editor were both fired for allowing the publication of a picture of a ballot with a vulgar message for Putin, Prokhorov tried to step in and purchase the media holding from Alisher Usmanov, a Kremlin-friendly oligarch with ties to Gazprom.  The move had clearly not received a Kremlin rubber-stamp, as Usmanov was thrown off and may have thought initially that Prokhorov had made the offer in jest.   Nevertheless, the move should have raised warning flags for the Kremlin, as the Kommersant publishing house once served as a vehicle for exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky’s political ambitions.  

In another interesting turn of events, ousted Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin has expressed a willingness to work with Prokhorov on the formation of a new center-right political party.  Many observers noted that it could hardly have been a coincidence that Kudrin’s statement, made during an interview with Vedomosti, was released on precisely the same day that Prokhorov announced his candidacy.  Just recently, Prokhorov took the proposal one step further by indicating that he would consider Kudrin for Prime Minister if he were elected.   To some, this seems to only provide further confirmation of Prokhorov’s ties to the Kremlin.  It should be noted, however, that despite Putin’s claim that Kudrin is “still one of us,” there are signs pointing to a growing split between Kudrin and the United Russia establishment.  While Kudrin had previously held out hope that United Russia would evolve into a center-right party, thus becoming a vehicle for economic modernization, he has become disillusioned by the party’s shift towards leftist and populist rhetoric; a somewhat desperate attempt to hold on to its base of blue collar workers and pensioners.  Kudrin has also been even more vocal than Prokhorov in siding with the Bolotnaya protesters, calling for a recount and the dismissal of Russia’s elections chief Vladimir Churov.   Despite Kudrin’s credentials as a successful finance minister, Lev Gudkov, director of the independent Levada polling center, believes that neither Prokhorov nor the former Finance Minister would attract adequate support to form a genuine and coherent opposition project.

What, then, is likely to come out of Prokhorov’s run for the presidency?  First of all, Prokhorov must gather two million signatures by January 18th to present to the Central Election Commission, which could itself turn out to be an insurmountable task.  The candidate has put together an infrastructure to gather the signatures, but he may nevertheless require assistance from the Kremlin; either to gather the signatures or to skirt the Commission’s stringent requirements.  Assuming this hurdle can be overcome, Prokhorov will continue to tread lightly, avoiding a Kremlin-sponsored backlash against his campaign while also failing to create a viable opposition to Putin’s continued rule.  Prokhorov has yet to outline a coherent agenda behind which the opposition could rally, and his perceived ties to the Kremlin make such a shift unlikely even if he were to produce an attractive campaign platform.  It is possible, however, that Prokhorov could step outside of his Kremlin-approved list of talking points in order to appeal to a broader segment of the population.  This is indeed what occurred when Prokhorov was heading the Right Cause party prior to the Duma elections.  The project began as a center-right pro-business party, which attracted support from some middle-class liberals, but not from the population at large.  The ambitious oligarch then overstepped his bounds, however, by bringing populist and nationalist rhetoric into his party’s political campaign.  While Prokhorov was ultimately ousted after he refused to back down on anti-drug activist Evgeniy Roizman’s inclusion on the party list, sources from within the party have reported that the Kremlin was more concerned that Right Cause would compete with United Russia’s own constituencies, rather than focusing on the right-liberal niche.   It was at this point that the Kremlin felt genuinely threatened, as the ruling elites were concerned by the prospect that different segments of the opposition could rally together under a common banner.  As long as nationalists, liberals, and populists continue to vote for separate candidates and parties, then United Russia faces no real threat to its hold on power.  If, on the other hand, the “fragmented opposition” were able to find a common cause and message, the ruling party’s hold on power would become significantly more tenuous.  Thus far, it seems that Prokhorov has limited himself to classically liberal, pro-business positions.  If the playboy politician decides to step outside of this box, however, then we may be faced with a repeat of the Kremlin’s assault on Prokhorov’s Right Cause.  It seems unlikely, however, that Prokhorov will test his luck a second time, as there is simply no need to risk his vast wealth and political influence for an election that he stands almost no chance of winning.

«Путин пока единственный, кто хотя бы как-то управляет этой неэффективной государственной машиной.»

Stephen Weil is a research intern at the Russia and Eurasia Program at CSIS.