Prokhorov’s presidential chances are not the point
By Ian Bremmer
The opinions expressed are his own.
After a week full of anti-government and pro-government protests, Russians woke up on Monday to big news. Mikhail Prokhorov, a political novice with billions of dollars—and the New Jersey Nets— to his name, announced his Presidential bid. Alexei Kudrin, a longtime bureaucratic infighter, also declared his plans to re-enter the political arena. These developments were even more significant considering both were ousted in rather public quarrels with the powers that be just months ago. Kudrin said he would support and aid a pro-reform liberal party that would stand as a counterweight to the incumbent United Russia. Prokhorov intends to challenge Putin for the presidency in March 2012 on a platform that would appeal to Russia’s “disenchanted middle class.”
No matter what Kudrin and Prokhorov say in public, they both represent the same thing to Russia and the world: Vladimir Putin’s iron grip on power. As I’ve written before, Putin is the most powerful individual on the planet. To think that either man would risk his freedom or his fortune to oppose Putin’s Kremlin, no matter what their stated reasons are, is just wrong. That said, there are reasons to watch this “race” as it will give some insight into Putin’s inevitable third term as president.
Putin has had to deal with a growing sense of dissatisfaction in Russia as of late. Growth and living standards are stagnating, while economic inequality persists. It is unclear whose pockets are being lined with the wealth generated by Russia’s massive natural resources. The lack of freedom of the press, centralized control over economic opportunity, and pervasive corruption that makes a mockery of the justice and security systems and other institutions, are Putin’s levers of power– and also the focal points for protesters. The protestors’ complaints crystallized last week over United Russia, Putin’s party, winning a smaller but still strong majority in the parliamentary elections. Accusations of election fraud were widespread and tens of thousands took to the streets in protest over the course of last week. Putin has not been in a position to crack down on these protests — they’re too visible and too widespread — but be sure that the oligarchs and ruling classes in Russia are on Putin’s side. While his tactics for retaining power have had to change, the outcome is the same.
Monday, a pro-United Russia rally in Moscow had the distinct air of a made-for-media event, with the college kids in attendance complaining their classes had been cancelled in order to compel them to turn out to show their “support” for the current regime. But the numbers, even if not to the extent that the state television claims, were there. Though Prokhorov and Kudrin will deny it endlessly, their candidacies are without a doubt sanctioned by the Kremlin. Just this year, Prokhorov was the leader of a pro-business liberal party that was created by and quite obviously aligned with the Kremlin. He quit because of a falling out with one of Putin’s Kremlin advisors — but it was not a falling out so great that Prokhorov became persona non grata. Quite the opposite, Prokhorov’s political resurrection may prove too useful for either Putin or the Kremlin middlemen to pass up.
Prokhorov has not forgotten that he owes his fortune and therefore his allegiance to Putin. As he already stated in his press conference, he doesn’t plan to dwell on attacking Putin (no more than 10% of his platform will be anti-Putin), but rather would like to talk about his plans for Russia. Kudrin has all but ignored Putin in laying out his case for a new party. Imagine if Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney came out tomorrow and said they were done attacking President Obama and wanted to focus solely on their plans for the U.S. Both Kudrin and Prokhorov represent ‘acceptable opposition’ to Moscow. That’s a recipe for a gracious but certain defeat. Kudrin owes his allegiance to Putin for slightly different reasons, but the result is the same: both candidates exist to draw off votes and appease the intellectual classes who are disenchanted with Putin’s leadership. But they will do nothing to keep Putin from a third term as President.
Putin will run a campaign — he will go to a supermarket, complain that prices are too high, and prices will be lowered. He will find some way to distribute a token amount of the natural resource wealth to the public, such as ordering a price cap on gasoline. He will spend the money it takes to make a noticeable impact for his base. He’ll make the gestures to the public and the media that he deserves a third term. And he’ll get it.
What will be interesting is whether Putin makes any adjustments to his leadership style upon winning that third term. Will he embrace some limited reforms? Will he attempt to prepare Russia for a day when he is no longer president? Putin, as president and now prime minister, has spent years gutting Russia’s institutions, in order to consolidate power. Could that, in the face of these protests, begin to be reversed, ever so slightly?
Whatever occurs in Russia, be sure that this is no Arab Spring. Changes are a long way off in Putin’s Russia. But the reemergence of Prokhorov and Kudrin in the political arena may just indicate that the Kremlin is toying with an idea of reform.
This essay is based on a transcribed interview with Bremmer.
Photo: Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov speaks during a news conference in Moscow December 12, 2011. Prokhorov announced on Monday his intention to run for president during the March 2012 election. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin