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 Robertamsterdam.com for flagging this) personal ambition and turf defense by United Russia also played a big role in undermining the Right Cause project:
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:
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