Passport

Even Mikhail Prokhorov’s charm won’t change Russia

By Jenia Ustinova

On 25 June, Mikhail Prokhorov, the charismatic Russian billionaire of global fame (his 2009 purchase of the New Jersey Nets should ring a bell) was elected the head of Right Cause, a center-right, pro-business political party. At 46, Prokhorov has had a wildly successful career (Forbes estimates his net worth at $18 billion) and has set himself up nicely for a foray into politics. In his speech at the Right Cause party congress, where he assumed the leadership reigns, Prokhorov promised to make Right Cause Russia's second "party of power" -- a tall order, considering that Right Cause currently has no representation in the State Duma. As anyone watching the new Nets stadium going up in Brooklyn knows, Prokhorov is used to having his way. But while he may well succeed in propelling Right Cause into second place, don't expect him to shake up the system once the electoral dust settles.

Some observers hope that Prokhorov's business background will lead to profound changes in Russian politics. But the most important ingredient for success in Russia today -- in both business and politics -- is working within and, if possible, with the system. Along with a handful of other oligarchs, Prokhorov made a seamless transition from the Yeltsin era to the Putin regime and, since then, has stayed largely in good graces with Moscow. His one bump came in 2007, when it was alleged that he procured escorts for friends at a French luxury ski resort. The scandal reportedly did not go over well with the Kremlin. Since then, the young mogul has kept a lower profile, taking charge of a number of sports teams (Prokhorov has created a charitable foundation to oversee the development of sports and culture in Russia, and he serves as the president of the Russian Biathlon Union), pursuing investments in high-technology (he sits on the Government Forum for Nanotechnology), and pioneering Yo-mobile, the Russian-made hybrid car that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev took for a highly publicized spin earlier this year.

Prokhorov's good standing with Putin and Medvedev is reportedly what landed him the Right Cause gig. He by no means volunteered himself for the post, and most likely was asked to take it by one or both of Russia's top dogs. And in advance of the December 4th Duma elections, Right Cause will likely have access to crucial public resources, including televised airtime, to make its presence known. (Right Cause currently barely registers on voters' radars. Only 2% would back the party at the ballot box, according to a June 29th opinion survey, while 17% plan to cast ballots for the Communists, Russia's second most popular party after the ruling United Russia.) The Right Cause party congress was televised, and within two days of it, in his capacity as party leader, Prokhorov met with Medvedev, who expressed his approval of Right Cause's party platform. That's only the second time the president has met with the head of a political party not represented in the Duma.

Prokhorov's potential success won't depend only on the state. His fame, personal wealth, good looks, and charisma also should help him score some election points. At the end of the day, though -- and to the disappointment of pro-business, progressive elites who have been expressing growing dissatisfaction with Russia's stifled political structure -- Right Cause is a regime-sanctioned outlet for those who disapprove of United Russia's populist bent, not a serious movement for structural change. Prokhorov is part of the establishment and knows that it will hold his personal and business assets hostage should he try to break with it. So while he may be shaking up the Nets, Right Cause should be seen as no more than a new chapter in Russia's old playbook of co-opting the opposition.

Jenia Ustinova is a member of Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.

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