Prokhorov no torch-bearer for Russia’s reformers

December 14, 2011

 By Pierre Briançon
The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own

Financial markets feel the oligarchs’ pain. This week investors have been punishing companies whose owners are deemed a bit too close to Vladimir Putin. It’s as if they remember the Russian president’s original bargain with the robber barons – you can keep the money, but don’t get near politics. Genuine democratisation could leave Russian billionaires’ past and present deals open to more intense scrutiny than ever before.

The fear of a truly new order may have motivated one oligarch to jump the gun and declare his candidacy in the March 2012 presidential election. Mikhail Prokhorov made his fortune building up the Norilsk Nickel group and is now more famous for his playboy ways and ownership of the New Jersey Nets. He says he wants to be the candidate of reform. But his only foray into politics was recent and brief, as head of a token political party. Russians were left wondering whether he was a stooge of the regime or a fool for taking himself seriously.

Yet Prokhorov’s move, along with the vague plans of former finance minister Alexei Kudrin to form a liberal party in Russia, point to the massive hole at the centre of Russian politics; there is no party to represent the educated middle class aspiring to a true rule of law. Whether the growing protest movement can foster such a party is a different matter.

Putin should not have been afraid of an independent liberal party. Even his severest critics grant that his own United Russia could still count on the support of about 30 percent of the population. The opposition communists and the ultra-nationalist right, the main aggrieved parties in the rigging of the elections, are only vaguely organised.

But now it may be too late for democracy to wait for consent from above. Any leader or political force that appears to be mostly a Kremlin attempt to calm “the annoyed urban class”, to quote a dismissive and exasperated Putin aide, will be discredited from the start. Yet that annoyed group needs to show quickly that a democratised Russia amounts to more than a communist-vs.-nationalist confrontation, arbitrated by the troops of Vladimir Putin.

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