Russian Puppet-Master

16 September 2011

The Russian Puppet-Master

by Gwynne Dyer

“He took off the Kremlin dog collar,” explained a friend of Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man, as the political party Prokhorov had founded to run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the December elections blew up in his face last week.

Prokhorov spent about $15 million setting up the new party, Right Cause, and now he wants his money back. The Kremlin stole the party from him, he claims, though he never blames President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir personally.

It can’t be the money that made him so cross: $15 million is about one-tenth of one precent of Prokhorov’s wealth. It can’t be a hunger for real democracy in Russia either; his party was being created with Kremlin backing, and the proof was that it was being allowed on television. That doesn’t happen without the government’s permission.

Putin & Co. had allegedly encouraged Prokhorov to launch Right Cause in order to provide a safe repository for the votes of businessmen and intellectuals who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Putin’s own United Russia Party any more. It wouldn’t be a real opposition party with ambitions of its own, of course, but it would improve the optics of the situation and offer friendly criticism of the regime’s actions.

Such opposition is sorely needed, because many people in the Russian elite are getting fed up with Putin’s rule. When I was in Moscow last week I went along to the 50th birthday party of a friend of a friend, and the dissatisfaction was palpable.

It was a tight circle of friends who had almost all known one another since university, most of them since school, and a few of them since kindergarten. It was a typical phenomenon of Soviet times, when you couldn’t really trust anybody you hadn’t known all your life (and it is disappearing in the younger generation that grew up since the collapse of Communist rule in 1991).

Much has improved greatly in Russia since Soviet times, but this is an impending loss that is to be mourned. There are few countries where groups of people who have long since scattered to different professions, places and standards of living still stay loyal to their old friendships, even coming together to celebrate one another’s birthdays. The downside was brutal, stupid repression; this was one of the upsides.

There we all were – and three separate men who had done well in business in the new Russia, two of them factory-owners, told me that they were thinking of voting for the Communists this time. Why? Because there is no other way to register a protest vote.

There isn’t. The Communists command a loyal group of voters who will never change their allegiance, but they are all getting older and they can never threaten the regime. All other “opposition” parties have either been neutered and coopted, or else banned from taking part in elections on various technical pretexts.

So if you belong to the more intelligent wing of the ruling elite, then you try to create a different place where disgruntled intelligentsia and businessmen can park their protest votes. Perhaps a centre-right party that will defend their economic interests, but offer an articulate critique of the regime’s policies.

Prokhorov’s party was never going to replace United Russia, but it’s entirely possible that some people around Putin – perhaps the even the great man himself – thought that cogent criticism from a loyal opposition might do them and the country some good.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to control the Russian political system as tightly as he does. Even after eleven years in power, he is immensely popular, for he has given Russians back their self-respect and a modest degree of prosperity. He would win a free election hands down no matter how many political parties were allowed to compete, and how easy their access to the mass media.

So in Russia’s long-term interest, he should lighten up a bit and allow the political system to evolve towards a genuine democracy. Only slowly, of course, for he still thinks he is indispensable to stability, but maybe that’s what he had in mind in allowing the creation of Prokhorov’s party. So what went wrong?

There are undoubtedly elements within the Putin regime who think no opposition should be tolerated, either because they fear anarchy or just because they think their own interests would suffer. According to Prokhorov, the name of the chief villain is Vladislav Surkov.

The collapse of Prokhorov’s party was slapstick comedy. Last Wednesday, he said, 21 “doubles” of authorised delegates arrived at Right Cause’s first major party conference with false papers. The real delegates were not admitted, and the conference began without his presence or permission. After that it went downhill very fast, with Prokhorov declaring his own breakaway party and then abandoning that as well, all within 24 hours.

He blamed Surkov, President Medvedev’s top aide. “We have a puppet master in the country, who long ago privatised the political syatem, and who for a long time has disinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system,, who pressures the media…and tries to manipulate public opinion.”

Who knows? It could have been Putin changing his mind. It could have been Surkov circumventing his wishes. But this is not going to be the year when a credible non-Communist oppposition party emerges in Russia.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 6 and 7. (“It can’t…permission”; and “It was…upsides”) Also “There isn’t” paragraph 9 can be dropped.