By Yael Levine
On Sept. 16, the Kremlin's latest experiment in "managed democracy" ended in disaster when Russia's third-richest man, Nets owner and oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, made his dramatic exit from the Right Cause party and exposed Russia's behind-the-scenes political dealings. In an abruptly called press conference replete with zingy one-liners, Prokhorov declared that representatives of the president's administration had mounted a raid on Right Cause. Cameras flashed and journalists tweeted as Prokhorov signed and displayed a document ordering the party's executive committee dissolved and its most prominent members fired. Less than a day later, he resigned. But far from auguring change, the hubbub will likely only encourage the Kremlin to consolidate around Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party and forgo building even the façade of a multiparty system.
Right Cause was born in 2008 as the product of three liberal parties that had watched their popular support dwindle to 1 percent or less of the voting population by the end of Putin's presidency. When Prokhorov unexpectedly stepped up to head Right Cause in June, everyone assumed he was part of a Kremlin ploy to reinvigorate the party as an avenue for disaffected liberals to let off steam-harmlessly. As poster boy, Prokhorov's job was merely to provide the funds and cache the party required to mount a respectable campaign for the Duma elections this December.
So it was surprising to many when Prokhorov seemed to take being an opposition leader seriously. A Right Cause manifesto he published last month on the party's website (which has been "in reconstruction" since last week) and on his blog was harshly critical of Russia's authoritarian political system and hollow judicial one. He was likewise insistent about adding Yevgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug activist and former Duma deputy that the Kremlin disapproved of, to the party's ranks. And he reportedly planned to organize some sort of tent camp for Right Cause supporters -- a throwback to Ukraine's Orange Revolution and to what is probably Putin's worst nightmare. By the time the party congress came around, the Kremlin, it would seem, had had enough. During the first day of the party congress, a split emerged between the pro-Prokhorov faction (some of whom were literally locked out of the day's meetings) and the anti-Prokhorov faction (who seemed to have been sent expressly to hijack Right Cause).
The height of the drama came when Prokhorov called Vladislav Surkov (Russia's answer to Karl Rove) a puppet-master and said that he blocked real political competition. This affront to Russia's democracy "manager" likely went unnoticed by the bulk of the population, since only a sanitized version aired on television. But those who followed the events closely were among Russia's newspaper- and blog-reading elite -- precisely the constituency Right Cause was designed to placate. They watched as a Kremlin that thought it could have its cake and eat it too was chastened. And the Kremlin itself was surely paying attention as Right Cause, a party it had co-opted for public consumption, morphed into an embarrassment that needed covering up. Shaken by the fiasco, the Kremlin will be careful to limit its electioneering efforts in the run up to the Duma elections and to the presidential race in March to pumping up United Russia.
Yael Levine is a member of Eurasia Group's Eurasia practice.
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