Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Power Vertical

A Requiem For Managed Pluralism?

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov gestures during a news conference in Moscow on September14.
Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov gestures during a news conference in Moscow on September14.
It is hard to look at Right Cause's public meltdown last week as anything other than an unmitigated disaster for the Kremlin's political managers.

Not only has a high-profile project to create a regime-friendly pro-business party to draw the votes of the disgruntled liberal intelligentsia and professional classes spectacularly fallen apart just months before parliamentary elections -- but it has done so in a way that airs the ruling elite's dirty laundry for all to see.

In an interview with Ekho Moskvy following Mikhail Prokhorov's September 15 resignation from Right Cause, political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin declared that the "era of simulated democracy in Russia is over." Oreshkin added that the episode illustrates that "within the elite, real conflicts are maturing and coming to a head that will, one way or another, spill out into public view.”

Prokhorov himself suggested as much, assailing First Deputy Kremlin Chief of Staff Vladislav Surkov, the regime's informal ideologist, as "a puppet master who long ago privatized the political system."

In a blog post on September 16, Prokhorov softened his criticism of Surkov, writing: "There was no personal conflict with anyone. … In the end it was a conflict of ideologies. At this stage the conservatives won. I wanted change, but the system was not ready."

Ideology certainly explains some of what just happened. The ruling elite is currently divided among those who want to open up the political system, albeit in a tightly managed way, and those who want to maintain the vertically integrated authoritarian state Vladimir Putin built over the past decade. Both sides seek to maintain the dominance of the current ruling circle, but differ on the means.

But as Joera Mulders at Russia Watchers points out in a well researched post (h/t to James Kimer at for flagging this) personal ambition and turf defense by United Russia also played a big role in undermining the Right Cause project:

Within the elites there is a certain level of understanding that the political spectrum needs more plurality to reflect the expectations of the growing middle class and to channel feelings of dissent. This is the essence of ‘managed democracy’, or to do more justice to the direction of the vector: managed democratization. We’re not talking big changes here. A mere 10 percent less Duma seats for the United Russia party, meaning a small majority in the next parliament and the emergence of a few new voices would already be a strong signal, reflecting a trend of social and political development towards more plurality.
Opinions within the elite, however, differ on the urgency. Short terms incentives for personal fortunes and careers often take the upper hand over the long term incentives for elite survival. As a behemoth of unbridled ambition and greed the United Russia party is extremely hard to control, if not impossible to stop.

Mulders adds that Surkov's team in the Kremlin, which oversees domestic politics and political parties, failed to rein in these parochial interests:

While the president talks liberalization of politics, these guys do the dirty work of maintaining ‘stability’, most often on a need to know basis...
More importantly, this ‘management of democracy’ implies an exclusive influence over appointments for political office. Hence the strong ties between Surkov’s men in the Kremlin and the United Russia party. It is this system of political appointments, favors and personal grudges that will divert almost every man from the common goal of moderate political liberalization. While the presidential aim may be to deflate United Russia for a mere 10 percent, their ties with the federal apparatus of the party, its governors and mayors ensure that they’re working for the individual interests of the ruling elite and not the president. The president himself is much too busy with foreign politics and promoting his modernization agenda to know what his subordinates are up to. Most communications likely go through Surkov.

In other words, Surkov and his team were so captured by the ruling party they were supposed to be managing that they apparently lost sight of the bigger picture.

This dance between Surkov and United Russia is nothing new. Back in June 2009, the Kremlin ideologist said the ruling party needed to "be flexible" and "learn to enter into coalitions." The proposal was firmly rejected by State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov, who was just fine with United Russia's two-thirds constitutional majority. (You can read my post on the Surkov-Gryzlov exchange here)

It is unclear what happens next. Is the whole managed pluralism project dead? If so, Mulders notes that this could have negative consequences for the ruling elite:

The elite needs that plurality to channel discontent when after the elections unpopular social reforms need [to] commence...Now the Kremlin and the country may stand empty handed with United Russia, the communists and good old Zhirinovsky. For another 5 years! An increase of discontent and social protests are hereby guaranteed. Furthermore, in the coming years United Russia will function as the lightning rod for all that discontent.

In a recent editorial, "Kommersant" noted that the collapse of the Right Cause project comes on the heels of the failure of another pocket opposition project, the ostensibly center-left A Just Russia -- and calls into question the competence of the Kremlin's political operation:

Prokhorov's rebellion, together with the evolution of Just Russia, demonstrates the degradation of the Kremlin's managers. In order to simplify their job and to increase the convertibility of their own bureaucratic powers, toward the middle of the last decade they abolished politics, emasculating it of real content. The examples of Prokhorov and [A Just Russia leader Sergei] Mironov...showed that that lack of practice is leading to an inability to control even their own projects. The political managers are at a loss and are making stupid mistakes. It is hard to imagine to what failures this will lead when, given the slightest reduction in financial flows from the export of raw materials, stern economic reality returns real politics to Russia.
-- Brian Whitmore

Tags: Mikhail Prokhorov,2011 State Duma elections,Right Cause,Vladislav Surkov

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Comment Sorting
by: BeatTheDrum
September 23, 2011 17:28
This is a very truthful view of the current political climate in Russia. From an objective view outside Russia, it is more clear than ever that the current leadership is beginning to show weaknesses in how it is seen both to Russians and especially to the outside world. The more their strong-arm tactics fail, the more they will be discovered for who they really are...a small group of power hungry politicians who will let Russia fall off the world stage so that they can remain in power. Sound familiar? It is exactly what happened throughout Russian history. The only person with any new ideas is Prokhorov, and he has the respect of the world political and business leaders to bring new investment in Russia. This will help his vision for social and economic reform become reality, which is what the Russian people truly want, need, and deserve.

by: Olga from: Germany
September 24, 2011 20:44
Great article! great analyse!
"The examples of Prokhorov and [A Just Russia leader Sergei] Mironov...showed that that lack of practice is leading to an inability to control even their own projects." - that schows only they're unwillingness to play somebody else's game. Actually, this game from Surkov, the memebr of team in the Kremlin. Some Prochorov's ideas are not so cute, but at least he suppose unconventional direct measures, instead of water from Kreml (free media, democracy, stabolisation bla bla bla), and malicious attacks from the side os marginal opposition, which is just ridiculous. Russia needs Prochorov. Only country leaders and grey eminence don't

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15:34 November 26, 2014


So by now, we've all seen how passengers in Krasnoyarsk had to get out and push their flight out of the snow...

...and we've all seen the snarky Twitter memes this has inspired...

...but have you heard about onboard drunken onboard brawl that grounded a flight in Novosibirsk?

12:41 November 26, 2014


12:33 November 26, 2014


Via The Moscow Times:

A lawmaker on the State Duma's Defense Committee has proposed banning the import of French wines in response to Paris' decision to suspend delivery of the first of two helicopter carriers to Russia.

"Let's ban the sale of French wine in Russia," Deputy Vladimir Bessonov told Russian News Service radio on Tuesday. "Even talking about this can bring about desired results," he said, without specifying what these would be.

France, under pressure from its Western allies to cancel a 1.2 billion euro contract ($1.58 billion) with Russia for Mistral-class warships, said earlier Tuesday that it was suspending delivery of the first of two carriers because of Russia's meddling in eastern Ukraine.


12:21 November 26, 2014
12:20 November 26, 2014


12:18 November 26, 2014


From RFE/RL's News Desk:


By RFE/RL's Russian Service

The editor-in-chief of an independent Russian news website says he will seek political asylum in the United States.

Oleg Potapenko told RFE/RL on November 26 that he has arrived in the United States despite efforts by Russian authorities to prevent him from leaving the country.

Potapenko is editor of, a news site in the Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk that has reported about the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

On November 12, the openly gay Potapenko and his partner were prevented from boarding a flight from Khabarovsk to Hong Kong after border guards said a page was missing from Potapenko's passport.

Potapenko says the page was cut out by a police officer who requested his passport for a check earlier that day.

He told RFE/RL that he had managed to leave Russia from another city, Vladivostok, on November 16.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel says Russia's actions in Ukraine are a violation of international law and a threat to peace in Europe.

Speaking bluntly in an address to Germany's parliament on November 26, Merkel said, "Nothing justifies the direct or indirect participation of Russia in the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk."

She told the Bundestag that Russia's actions have "called the peaceful order in Europe into question and are a violation of international law."

But she suggested there was no swift solution, saying, "Our efforts to overcome this crisis will require patience and staying power."

Germany has become increasingly frustrated over Moscow's refusal to heed Western calls to stop supporting pro-Russian separatists who have seized control of large parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine.

Close ties between Russia and Germany have been strained by the Ukraine crisis.

(Based on reporting by Reuters)


Ukraine has leveled fresh charges that Russia is sending military support to pro-Russian separatists in the east.

A foreign ministry spokesman said five columns of heavy equipment were spotted crossing into Ukrainian territory on November 24.

Evhen Perebyinis told journalists on November 25 that a total of 85 vehicles had been detected in the five columns that entered at the Izvaryne border crossing point from Russia.

"The Russian side is continuing to provide the terrorist organizations of the Donetsk and Luhansk people's republics with heavy armaments," said Perebynisis.

Separately, the Ukrainian military said one soldier had been killed and five others wounded in the past 24 hours as a shaky cease-fire declared on September 5 continued to come under pressure.

The six-month conflict in the east of Ukraine has left more than 4,300 people dead, according to the United Nations.

(Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)



Russia has rejected accusations that it is planning to annex Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told RFE/RL’s Current Time program on November 25: “There can be no question about any annexations.”

Georgia and the West have criticized a "strategic partnership" agreement between Russia and Abkhazia signed on November 24.

Tbilisi condemned the pact as an attempt by Moscow to annex the region.

Karasin also said Russia will “continue sparing no effort, nerves, financial expenses” to make sure its neighbors “do not feel endangered.”

"As a large state and a powerful country, Russia is constantly responsible for stability on its borders and everything that is under way along its borders," he added.

Under the "strategic partnership," Russian and Abkhaz forces in the territory will turn into a joint force led by a Russian commander.


19:16 November 21, 2014


On this week's Power Vertical Podcast, we use the one-year anniversary of the Euromaidan uprising to look at how it changed both Ukraine and Russia. My guests are Sean Guillory and Alexander Motyl.

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The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It covers 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