Russian chess

After a long summer recess, partly spent in Russia to monitor the general pre-election mood, I have a lot to reflect on in Russian politics. Not so much, actually. The summer months have been filled with the ridiculously under- or overplanned depart of St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matvienko to the helm of the Federation Council (which I intend to deal with later, once the circle is closed and we have a new St. Petersburg governor, likely Dmitry Kozak), as well as the almost equally bumpy organisation of both the All Russia People’s Front and Right Cause. This latter is also worth attention, as the transformation of the party system is a strong indicator of what changes might be going on under the surface. The most important question for the moment seems to be what exactly Mikhail Prokhorov is meant for, what is he good for, and whom does he represent. As there have been a lot of confusion surrounding this topic, leading to excellent, but mostly mutually contradicting analyses, I decided to present my own take on the matter, trying to show why I think Right Cause is just another dispensable tool (however fancy it is) and is not meant to be some serious political attempt in the elite’s hands. 

On 9 August Gleb Pavlovsky, one of Russia’s chief “political technologists” and a known liberal gave the summer months’ most interesting interview about the chances of both Putin and Medvedev running for president next year. Pavlovsky, who just months ago was one of the main advocates of Medvedev running for a second term, now suddenly seems to think that as Medvedev is no longer considered as the single candidate of the ruling elite, he might be running against Vladimir Putin. Furthermore, Pavlovsky now considers that these “competitive” elections would be the only way to avoid some “crisis” that has apparently been looming over the heads of Russia’s elite. What he says, practically, is that there is such a wide cleavage between the two sides of the elite that leaving them in one party and making them accept a candidate that they do not favour might upset the whole system.
Please. This way of arguments, plausible as it sounds, is quite weak, and I’m sure that the otherwise very knowledgeable Pavlovsky, a keen supporter of Medvedev, irritated by the lack of decisiveness within the ruling elite, had purposes other than actually analysing the situation, with it. 
First of all, the losing side must sooner or later make peace with a winning candidate anyway. The question is whether this conflict happens before or after the presidential election, and within the party or between two parties. From this point of view I think it is obvious that trying to settle the whole business within United Russia (or the Popular Front) is less risky than letting people with considerable administrative power slip away from the party. This argument is further underpinned by the recently very popular assumption that the presidential candidate will be chosen by a 15-20 strong “team” of influential businessmen which, according to Yevgeny Minchenko’s list, still comprises mainly of Putin’s men, but has some liberals as well. Now if these people – whom some call “Extended Putin” – can negotiate and come to a decision, why should they risk one thing they put above all: stability? “Primaries” have already been running in the elite, although the purpose here is to convince or buy the members of the “team.” 
Second,  this has happened before. In 2007, when Putin was about to choose his successor, the then 2 main groups of the Russian elite conflicted each other. However, even under those circumstances, where pure business interests clashed, things looked far less certain than now and the whole system was more rigid, an open crisis could be avoided. Despite the arrests and the downfall of certain siloviki, the system worked and remained intact. Now at least the overall direction the country is headed seems to be clear, it is obvious that Putin can retain his influence however he wants to and the system allows for a much larger (though still restricted) amount of political deviation. 
Third, it seems that the decision will be announced soon. United Russia will hold its congress on 23-24 September, and Medvedev, in spite of his cool relationship with the party in power, will be among the invitees. As this will be United Russia’s pre-election congress, we can expect that the presidential candidate will be nominated already. The People’s Front, quite obviously, cannot nominate Medvedev, as the whole structure is built around Putin, but United Russia can, and probably will. Otherwise, I see no point in the invitation. Moreover, if Medvedev is the candidate of United Russia, it will strengthen his dependency on Putin and his inner circle. This way, the question is not – as Andrey Liakhov put it on ROPV – whether Medvedev’s “vanity will prevail over reason”, but whether reason will prevail over Putin’s vanity. Which, as a former KGB official, he learned to shun. 
As for the People’s Front’s part in this story, many noticed in July, somewhat surprised and startled, how liberal the association’s draft electoral program was. While I cannot but agree that the document will be reviewed, it nevertheless shows that Putin’s political machine is ready to provide Medvedev’s gradual liberalisation with the necessary legislative power. It just fits into the picture, plus, this way, the liberalisation would be the tandem’s project, not only Medvedev’s – another tool to soothe the disgruntled members of the elite. 
One very important thing is missing from the program, though: the popular election of governors. As I have blogged earlier, this might be introduced only after the tandem has made sure that the ruling party can retain influence in the regions, or if they find a compromise between the present system and the elections. But definitely not before this year’s Duma elections. This is where Right Cause comes into the picture. Surprisingly liberal as the Popular Front’s program might be, it cannot voice ideas of radical change. On the other hand, an impudent opposition party, as the government intends to present Right Cause, can, and afterwards, the party in power or the President can take on some ideas, make them seem more moderate but equally forward-looking, and present them to voters. Just what I think Medvedev will do with gubernatorial elections. 
All the other fuss with Right Cause’s billboards having been removed and with the personnel policies of the party are, I’m pretty sure, acts of diversion. As AGT’s very interesting analysis about the recent stories surrounding Right Cause suggests, the billboard frenzy might have been an attempt to present Right Cause as a radical opposition party, while the mass exodus in Kamchatka might have been a warning to Prokhorov to know his place. Which, at the end, will not lead to either the rise or the fall of Right Cause, but will keep it a cogwheel in Russia’s new power machinery, and nothing more. I have already touched upon this topic earlier, arguing that the sheer nomination of Prokhorov as party chairman (as opposed to Kudrin, Shuvalov or Dvorkovich) showed how the Kremlin did not want Right Cause to build up a relevant political pole. 
And one more thing, to support my arguments. While I know history never repeats itself, there are just disturbingly too many similarities between Right Cause and another party from roughly a term ago. These include: 1.) an over-ambitious party chairman who vows several times to become the main rival of United Russia by the next elections; 2.) suspicious talks with the incumbent President about who knows what, always followed by some practical proof of the Kremlin’s manual control; 3.) party leader chosen by the ruling elite with the open purpose of altering the course of the party; 4.) party ideology carefully fine-tuned to absorb a group of voters not attracted to United Russia; 5.) well-known public figures on the party’s list; 6.) troubles with the party personnel, with electoral material, especially in Yekaterinburg; 7.) the one and only Yevgeny Roizman, as one of the party’s faces. 
Yes, the other party’s name is A Just Russia. Now please if anyone could tell me what degree of independence and popularity they achieved in four year’s time. We should perhaps ask Sergei Mironov, who was recently removed from the chair of the Federation Council as easily as a pawn from a chessboard. 
Despite all the changes in the last four years, I doubt Prokhorov will get to be promoted to a knight.
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