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Meet Russia's Political Entrepreneurs


Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin

Former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin

What is Mikhail Prokhorov up to? In an interview with Gazeta.ru on January 31, the billionaire Kremlin-connected oligarch insisted again that his presidential campaign is the real deal, not some ploy to divide the opposition vote and ease Vladimir Putin's re-reelection. The opposition is, quite naturally, more than a little suspicious.
During our conversation for the last Power Vertical podcast, I put this question to NYU professor and longtime Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti, author of the blog "In Moscow's Shadows." Mark's thoughtful answer is worth reproducing here in full:
I would suspect that Prokhorov, like so many actors within the current Russian elite is at once telling the Kremlin that he is playing the Kremlin game while keeping one eye on potential endgames, potential other outcomes, ways of actually maximizing and leveraging his own power.
I don't think that he has rolled in -- as he himself has proclaimed -- as an anti-Kremlin candidate with no connections to the Putin circle. There is some degree of connectivity there. But on the other hand, simply to write Prokhorov off as a complete Kremlin stooge would be a mistake.
The point is that everyone is a political entrepreneur in their own right in the current situation because nobody knows what is going to happen.
I think this is pretty much dead-on accurate -- and, as Mark suggests, not just in the case of Prokhorov. The same thing can be said about former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin and former Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov. Depending on how things develop, more high-profile names could be added to this list quite soon.
A particularly interesting new species that has appeared on Russia's landscape in the wake of the disputed December 4 parliamentary elections is the political entrepreneur. These longtime insiders are now hedging their bets and hoping to secure a safe landing regardless of how the current political crisis is resolved.
There is a bit of cynicism at work here, to be sure (we are, of course, talking about bureaucrats and politicians). But as is the case whenever there is the potential for rapid political change, there are also some principles at stake -- and for some, perhaps a political epiphany or two.
Prokhorov's first attempt to enter politics was -- when he agreed to head up the Right Cause party as a Kremlin-loyal pseudo-opposition force -- purely an insider game that ultimately fell apart amid noisy public acrimony in September.
He now says he is aligned with what he calls the liberal wing of the elite, which favors political reform and an end to Putin's system of "managed democracy."
“I think that the liberal part of the elite is bigger and bigger from day to day, because I have a lot of calls from different levels, and they really express their support for my candidacy," Prokhorov told Chrystia Freeland, global editor at large at Reuters, in a recent interview.
Meanwhile Mironov, who is also running in the March 4 presidential election, appears to be making some headway with the opposition and the emerging Russian Street.
The former Federation Council speaker is a longtime Putin loyalist going back to his time in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly in the 1990s. His center-left A Just Russia party -- which until recently was staunchly loyal to the regime -- was a Kremlin-backed project to siphon votes from the Communists.
But Mironov was nevertheless forced out of his speaker's post following a bitter dispute with the ruling United Russia party. He also backed Dmitry Medvedev for a second term in the Kremlin and drew fire for saying that his party would not support Putin's return to the presidency in 2012 if he were nominated by United Russia.
Running as an opposition party, A Just Russia won 64 mandates in the 450-seat State Duma in December, a marked improvement over the 38 it won as a pro-Kremlin party in 2007.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service today, veteran opposition figure Boris Nemtsov gave his seal of approval to Mironov's presidential bid, calling him the best of the registered candidates.
"For people taking to the streets, Mironov is preferable because he did not only heed our demands, but he included them in his program," Nemtsov said.
The political entrepreneur who has the most capital to work with, however, is Kudrin. The former finance minister is a good bet to end up being Russia's prime minister regardless of how the current crisis is resolved.
Kudrin is personally very close to Putin but has nevertheless been vocal about the need for political reform. He has said that December's parliamentary elections were a fraud and called for their results to be annulled. He has offered to act as a mediator between the opposition and the Kremlin. And he spoke at the massive street demonstrations in Moscow on December 24.
Despite this, Putin has repeatedly said that Kudrin is a valued member of his team and is widely believed to be planning on making him his premier should he win in March.
Prokhorov has likewise said that he would name Kudrin as his prime minister should he win the presidency.
Kudrin's ability to maneuver owes a lot to his friendship with Putin. But it also stems from the fact that as finance minister he was very good at his job -- stabilizing Russia's public finances and paying off its debt despite a breathtakingly corrupt environment ("Euromoney" magazine named him Finance Minister of the Year in 2010).
These new entrepreneurs don't by any means want to burn their bridges with Team Putin -- at least not yet. But they also want to be on the right side of the barricades. Their dance will continue at least until March 4 -- and perhaps longer.
-- Brian Whitmore

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or

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