Prokhorov’s presidential chances are not the point

December 13, 2011

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


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I suppose it can be difficult to teach an old dog new tricks. In any case we’ve seen this before from the Kremlin and Surkov in particular. Yet in a political system defined by personal relationships, much depends on the respective rifts between Prokhorov and Surkov, and Kudrin and Medvedev.

I would be surprised if the Kremlin staged both of these rows in anticipation of current events. If they had, then they would have done a better job of concealing election fraud. The sense here in Moscow now is that Putin is definitely on the back foot. It’s no revolutionary Arab awakening, as declining demography, emigration and economic growth have combined to create relatively abundant jobs for Russian youth (usually unburdened by rent or mortgages), but perhaps Vladimir Putin is no longer the most powerful individual on the planet.

It is of course possible that Kudrin and Prokhorov have been subtly co-opted by the Kremlin, though I get the sense that Kudrin is genuinely a liberal and that Prokhorov is “pro-business.” Whether or not the Kremlin is behind this or not is a moot point: even if Kudrin and Prokhorov were really independent, they would still be perceived as being too close to Putin. Again, what matters are personal relationships in this system of manual control, and Kudrin is a close friend of Putin’s, and Prokhorov has depended for so long on his benevolence. Furthermore, with the Communists being the strongest opposition party, it is highly unlikely that an oligarch (reviled for perceived theft of national natural resources) protected by Putin and a long-serving minister under Putin could ever set up a credible opposition party. But change might just come from within . . .

So the Kremlin may be toying with reform, but it doesn’t have much of a choice: whether it co-opts liberals or not, something has to give, as Russians refuse to continue being treated like cattle. The good days are over for Mr. Putin.

Posted by PfDG | Report as abusive

Even Putin must recognize that life in his country is grim. In the end, Gilgamesh realizes he is not immortal and opts to be a good king. The ‘Good Tzar’ is very much on Vlad’s mind, whether he can overcome himself and his training…

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive

No Mr. Bremer, the real question is why is change needed?

a) to get rid of Putin?
b) to change because there is a strong, united, political block ready to take power, backed by a large share of population and we are certain this new block will do good things for Russia?

If by any amazing miracle you find a) to be the answer you should further ask yourself why. To spare you the effort i’ll hint that you should look for that answer in the latest UN Council positions taken by Russia.

Posted by Qeds | Report as abusive

It’s a gross oversimplification at best, to presume that Putin is responsible for all the bad that happens in Russia. There are plenty of people in Russia in positions of power, who do not have Putin personally supervising them, and who have plenty of space for human corruptibility to develop… And there are traditions of corruption, and cultural acceptance of it, dating back beyond Soviet times, to the times of the old Czarist regime.

Take a peek at David Cay Johnston’s latest piece: ton/2011/12/13/wheres-the-fraud-mr-presi dent/

Russia has a shadow economy worth approximately 44% of their GDP! This is much higher than in any other major industrialised economy. Virtually every company in Russia has a dual accounting system: “white” and “black”; “above” or “below” the table… And virtually every major transaction in Russia (including peoples salaries) has a “white” and a “black” component. Corruption is absolutely pervasive in Russia. Companies that do everything above-board find it very hard to compete in Russia.

Now think… Does this black economy make the Russian government MORE or LESS powerful, relatively speaking? Would the Russian government not be much more powerful if (say) 80%-95% of their GDP was taxed and above-board? The only possible power-advantage gained by government officials from the perpetuation of the present situation is that they may safely presume that their personal enemies are engaging in corrupt shadow accounting tricks; and turn them over for prosecution in full confidence that wrongdoing will be discovered. But why would Putin or Medvedev need such pervasive corruption, just to handle a few personal rivals, if they’re already at the top of the social order, and on balance, they would be made far more powerful by a reduction in corruption than by a perpetuation of it? It doesn’t make any sense.

If Putin had an iron grip on everything that happened in Russia, do you think that Russia’s black economy would be so big? NO WAY! It’s like saying he’d shoot himself in the foot… I think we would all agree that the man is intelligent enough not to do that. That’s probably what scares some people in the West: he’s actually intelligent enough to sit on the other side of the negotiating table and get a good deal for Russia.

So if we’re going to criticise him (and I have no doubt whatsoever that valid criticisms are possible); can we at least make our criticisms self-consistent?

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Putin “the most powerful” individual on the planet – are you also running in the elections, Dr. Bremmer?

Posted by Tseko | Report as abusive