Irina Yarovaya, a State Duma deputy from the ruling United Russia party, took aim at billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov over the weekend, saying it would be illegal for him to contest Moscow's mayoral election unless he divested all his foreign assets. Putting those assets in a blind trust, as Prokhorov is reportedly planning to do would not suffice, Yarovaya added.
The comments drew a bitingly sarcastic response from Tatiana Kosobokova, spokeswoman for Prokhorov’s Civic Platform party.
"We are grateful to United Russia for the attention they are paying to Mikhail Prokhorov and possible candidates for mayor from Civic Platform. This attention is probably due to the fact that United Russia doesn't have a candidate of their own.... We sympathize with them," Kosobokova said, noting that acting Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin has declined to be United Russia's candidate in the election despite being among the party's leaders.
Ouch! Let the games begin! And it gets even better.
Prokhorov, it appears, spent some quality time with Yury Luzhkov this past weekend. The two have long been close and Prokhorov cryptically told reporters that they discussed "plans for the summer, hopefully common plans."
After that, reports surfaced on June 10 that the former Moscow mayor might play a prominent role in a potential Prokhorov campaign. The head of the party's Moscow branch, Mikhail Vyshegorodtsev, told Gazeta.ru that Luzhkov might even head his campaign staff.
Prokhorov, of course, has not even officially declared his candidacy for the September 8 election, although an announcement is expected this week.
Luzhkov, who is still popular in Moscow, particularly among older voters, was coy when asked about his "private meeting" with Prokhorov. The ex-mayor claimed that he and his old friend did not discuss the elections at all. He declined to answer whether he intended to support any candidate or even run himself.
"I don't intend to make any comments about that. That will come later," Luzhkov said.
In the past, Luzhkov has said he planned to participate in the elections "only as a voter."
Something is clearly up, and whatever it is should become clearer on June 13 when the Civic Platform announces its candidate.
But an open alliance between Prokhorov and Luzhkov could clearly be a game changer.
"This would be a serious threat to the dominant campaign scenario in Moscow. Prokhorov and Luzhkov are figures that could consolidate different parts of the electorate," political analyst Dmitry Orlov, a leading member of United Russia, told Gazeta.ru.
Indeed, the mayor and the oligarch could be dangerous to the authorities on a number of levels.
In terms of electoral math and coalition building, it could add pensioners and state employees to Prokhorov’s natural base of young urban entrepreneurs. Luzhkov, moreover, still carries considerable clout with much of the city's elite.
And in terms of pushing back against padding the vote through administrative resources, well, Luzhkov arguably wrote the textbook on that practice while mayor -- and presumably would have invaluable insight into countermeasures.
The only thing I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around is the fact that both Prokhorov and Luzhkov are willing to directly challenge the Kremlin.
The authorities have a mountain of "kompromat" on Luzhkov and his wife, Yelena Baturina, and would no doubt use it if they feared losing control of the capital.
And Prokhorov has a history of being very cautious when it comes to open confrontation with the powers that be.
But Yarovaya's comments suggest that the authorities are indeed worried about Prokhorov's candidacy. And the news of Luzhkov entering the mix explains why.
As I blogged last week, holding this election in September, rather than in 2015 when Sobyanin’s term was due to end, was a risky move by the authorities.
According to conventional wisdom, the Kremlin's calculation is that it is better to hold elections now, while Sobyanin is still relatively popular.
But as Sean Guillory of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Russian and Eastern European Studies noted on last week’s Power Vertical Podcast, that speaks volumes about the authorities’ state of mind.
"The fact that they don't know what Sobyanin's state will be in two years suggests that they are very uneasy about the future. They perceive popular discontent in the broadest sense as a potential force that could cause trouble for them in the future," Guillory said.
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: This post has been updated with Luzhkov's comments and other fresh information since being published on June 10.