I confess that I’m at a loss how to evaluate the goings-on in Russian politics this week. Actually, I’ve been suffering from a sense of Russo-vertigo for a couple of months now, since the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, known outside Russia mostly for owning the New Jersey Nets basketball team, announced that he and the liberal, pro-business party he had just been elected to lead, Right Cause, not only planned to run in the December elections to the State Duma but hoped to be part of government after those elections. Prokhorov seemed to be feeling out a new route to political power, taking great care to avoid the mistakes oligarch-turned-martyr Mikhail Khodorkovsky made when he came out, guns blazing, to take on Vladimir Putin. First of all, Prokhorov announced he was giving up his business interests in order to become a full-time politician, thus circumventing the Prime Directive of Putinism: no oligarchs in politics. Then, he kowtowed to the Tandem, paying dutiful visits to Putin and Dmitry Medvedev and earning cautious praise from the latter for his “revolutionary” ideas.
Since getting the official seal of approval to stand in the elections – which presumably meant approval to spend a reported $100 million on the campaign, giving him unprecedented media access for a candidate from outside United Russia – Prokhorov then began to look something like a true opposition candidate. He unveiled a shadow cabinet – with business leaders in several key ministries – and would not rule a run for the presidency if his party scored above 15 percent of the vote.
It all looked too strange to be true. Was Putin really going to invite a man with vast wealth, influential friends, and to all appearances a good brain into the inner sanctum of Russian politics?
Then at breathtaking speed came Prokhorov’s fall. On Tuesday he was warning of an attempt by the presidential administration to install a new Right Cause leader. On Thursday he was ousted, replaced by party insider Andrei Dunaev, and calling on his followers to quit “this party bought by the Kremlin.”
After coming across a reference to Turkish history, I’m now playing with the notion that Prokhorov fell because not because he represented a strong opposition force but because he was growing too disloyal, in a special sense. The builder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, though a committed liberal, did not believe his nation was ready for full democracy. Like Putin after he succeeded Yeltsin, Kemal foresaw his country being swept into a vortex of competing interests, many of them armed, leading to its total disappearance should real competitive democracy come into being. Yet in order to give an appearance of political competition he arranged for the creation of a “loyal opposition” party – only to order it swiftly closed down when his ideological opponents tried to seize control of it. After that he stuck with one-party rule with the self-proclaimed “Father of the Turks” (the inspiration for Turkmen leader Niyazov’s “Turkmenbashi” moniker?) as the unchallenged leader.
There are more recent and closer-by parallels as well. Ukraine’s conservative and centrist forces have split and re-split numerous times as more accommodating factions (such as that led by former President Yushchenko) at times found it expedient to serve as the “loyal opposition” to the industrialists from eastern Ukraine.
Putin, then, invited Prokhorov to become the leader of the loyal opposition, a role that has never been occupied by a significant political figure so far. Placing a famous, well-traveled billionaire in the job would have enabled Putin to show off his democratic credentials. Was Prokhorov’s talk of running for president the signal for his rivals in Right Cause to oust him? Was it when he warned that bureaucracy and authoritarian rule were threatening to create a “farce and parody of the Soviet Union” in Russia?
There is another scenario to consider. Maybe Putin never considered that Prokhorov would try to do what the opposition is supposed to – put him out of office. Maybe he naively thought that, after Khodorkovsky, the business elite would be satisfied with fake political jobs. Maybe. But somehow the words “naïve” and “Putin” do not make a natural pair.