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The Return Of The (Housebroken) Oligarchs

Mikhail Prokhorov
Mikhail Prokhorov
Apparently Mikhail Prokhorov isn't wasting any time revamping Right Cause.

The billionaire oligarch -- the president of the Onexim Group and owner of the New Jersey Nets -- says he wants to rebrand the pro-Kremlin center-right party, change its name, and bring in fresh faces.

"Vedomosti" reported on Monday that Prokhorov has invited another billionaire, Federation Council Deputy Suleiman Kerimov, to join. The daily also reported that Prokhorov is planning to recruit two more top businessmen, Arkady Volozh, the co-founder of Yandex, and Yevgeny Kaspersky of Kaspersky Lab.

The changes going on at Right Cause, which are clearly sanctioned by the Kremlin, come as another leading entrepreneur, Aleksandr Lebedev, announced plans to join Putin's fledgling All-Russian Popular Front.

So what's going on here? Are we returning to a 1990s-style Age of the Oligarchs, when leading tycoons played a leading role in politics -- an era that ended decisively with the October 2003 arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky?

The short answer, according to many Kremlin-watchers, is: Yes, but... (and it's a very big but).

Here's Andrew Roth writing in "Moscow News":

In the past, politics has been seen as the third rail for Russia's super-rich. The case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky stands out as a clear example of what happens when oligarchs overstep their bounds in the public arena. That case set a strong precedent, and for a long time oligarchs were wary of crossing the line with the Kremlin and ending up in jail or in exile. The current reality might be changing, but only as long as these businessmen effectively end up in the Kremlin's pocket.

The age when uber-oligarchs like Boris Berezovsky controlled vast swaths of the economy and could act as independent political players, bringing down governments, swaying elections, and manipulating the Kremlin is clearly not coming back.

What does appear to be happening is that the Kremlin is allowing select business moguls into the political arena to help retool the political system for the 2011-12 election season.

As I have blogged before, Prokhorov is no Khodorkovsky -- and he's certainly no Berezovsky. He knows the rules of the game and he can be expected to be pliant.

Prokhorov's role is clearly to turn Right Cause into a viable center-right party that would attract the support of the disaffected liberal intelligentsia, business class, and technocratic elite -- but to remain obedient to the Kremlin.

This has been made necessary by the precipitous decline in the ruling United Russia's popularity in recent years and by the failure of the ostensibly center-left A Just Cause to gain any real traction. "Reformatting is necessary, because everyone has egg on their faces, and not just United Russia," Aleksei Malashenko of the Moscow Carnegie Center told "Nezavisimaya gazeta."

So Prokhorov is playing his role, dutifully building up a pro-Kremlin party on United Russia's right flank.

"Prokhorov is maneuvering through the situation. The Kremlin needs a rightist party, and he understands that he can accept an offer to head it and hopefully increase his own effect on public politics," Olga Mefodyeva of the Center for Political Technologies told "Moscow News."

-- 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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