Prokhorov's surprise announcement on Monday that he would take the reigns of Right Cause ended that party's months-long search for an influential leader who would lead them into the State Duma and political relevance. The party had previously tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Kremlin advisor Arkady Dvorkovich, and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.
Prokhorov is Russia's third richest citizen with an estimated fortune of $22.7 billion and his deep pockets could conceivably turn Right Cause into a player overnight.
He is also be the first top business mogul to enter politics in such a high-profile way since Mikhail Khodorkovsky's ill-fated attempt to finance opposition parties in the 2003 Duma election.
But 2011 is not 2003, when Vladimir Putin was just getting started in consolidating his vice grip on Russia's political system and would tolerate no serious dissent. Today, the political landscape is markedly different, with a sharply divided elite and a widespread belief that Putin's top heavy power vertical is stifling economic development and growth.
And Prokhorov is not Khodorkovsky, who was challenging the Kremlin's priorities consistently prior to his October 2003 arrest. In contrast, Prokhorov has kept his nose clean in Putin's Russia, amassing his fortune and abiding by the unwritten rule forbidding business leaders from engaging in unsanctioned political advocacy.
No, I don't think Prokhorov is going rogue here. So what is going on?
Prokhorov's move came on the heels of Putin's announcement that he was forming a new political grouping called the All-Russian Popular Front, which many analysts see as a vehicle for Putin to return to the Kremlin following the 2012 elections. Putin made his announcement at a conference of United Russia in Volgograd and the details of how the ruling party and the new group will work together are not entirely clear yet.
Right Cause, meanwhile, has endorsed President Dmitry Medvedev's reelection.
So one theory out there is that the groundwork is being laid for some form of managed competition between Putin and Medvedev in 2012. The assumption here is that Putin would return to the presidency, but the election would have a veneer of respectability and legitimacy.
This could be what's going on, but I am far from convinced.
The more likely scenario is that a decision about 2012 has not been reached yet and the elite is setting up the political infrastructure to keep all their options open. The rest is political theater.
In a widely discussed report published online today, Kremlin-connected political analyst Dmitry Orlov, director general of Agency for Political and Economic Communications, argues that decision about who will be president in 2012 is being decided by "the most influential 25-30 Russian politicians and businessmen" behind closed doors:
But whatever this select group decides, Orlov says the alliance between Putin and Medvedev will endure beyond the election:
The formation of the Popular Front, which will purportedly bring together various Kremlin-friendly political parties and social organizations, is one vehicle to consolidate the elite. Beefing up Right Cause, which will give disgruntled liberals in the elite a (limited) voice, is another.
In all likelihood, a final decision on 2012 will not be made before the elections to the State Duma in December of this year.
Meanwhile, a new set of tea leaves will be available for reading following Medvedev's much-anticipated press conference on Wednesday.
-- Brian Whitmore