It's just been a couple months since Mikhail Prokhorov burst onto the political scene to take over a revived Right Cause party. The Kremlin-sponsored project was supposed to give liberally inclined Russian voters who are disillusioned with the ruling United Russia party a voice (or at least the imitation of one) in the next State Duma in a way that was not threatening to the current elite.
I called the phenomenon "managed pluralism" and assumed that it had the blessing of those at the very top -- or at least a critical mass of the ruling circle. Prokhorov was even being touted as a potential prime minister.
But now, suddenly, political obituaries for Right Cause and Prokhorov are already appearing in the Russian media.
A story in yesterday's edition of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quotes political analysts as saying that Prokhorov "is leading Right Cause to disaster" due to the party's embrace of nationalists:
Such an assessment from "Nezavisimaya gazeta," which caters to the liberal intelligentsia and the technocratic wing of the political elite, is an ominous sign.
And they are not the only media who have taken note of "Right Cause's" hard right turn. Here's an excerpt from an editorial in Polit.ru from August 19:
In a thoroughly reported story, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" political reporter Aleksandra Samarina recalls the controversy that erupted when Boris Nadezhdin, a senior member of Right Cause, told "Izvestia" that the party was actively recruiting nationalists (see my post on the scandal here).
Prokhorov publicly rebuked Nadezhdin, but that did little to quiet the scandal, as Samarina wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta":
The story also noted that the party's billboards used a "combination of colors identified with the flag of the Russian Empire, better remembered in association with Russian Marches." And the party's flag, the daily wrote, used colors "identical to the ones used on the flag of Eduard Limonov's outlawed National Bolshevik Party."
"Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that Prokhorov was trying to repeat the success Dmitry Rogozin enjoyed with his nationalist party Rodina (Motherland), which polled 15 percent in the 2003 State Duma election.
If that is indeed the case, Prokhorov may find the far right side of the political spectrum a little bit crowded. In addition to Vladimir Zhirinovsky's pseudo-nationalist LDPR, the Justice Ministry has recently approved the registration of Rogozin's Rodina party, which plans to join Vladimir Putin's Popular Front and compete in the December elections.
Why would nationalist-inclined voters choose to back an imitation of Rodina when they can choose the real thing? And who was behind this apparently flawed strategy?
Samarina's story in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quotes Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, who blames the strategy on Prokhorov's political consultants, who hail from the same team that ran Arseny Yatsenyuk's very expensive -- and very disappointing -- campaign for president of Ukraine in 2010.
Prior to that election, Yatsenyuk, a former foreign minister, was widely seen as a young liberal who could potentially be a dark horse in the race. But his presidential campaign, which cost an estimated $60 million-$70 million, presented him as a tough military-style nationalist.
"Prokhorov's political scientists and advisors are at fault here," Bunin told the daily. "These are the guys who used to work for Arseny Yatsenyuk. It is to these guys that Yatsenyuk owes his disastrous performance in the presidential race.... That's whose services Prokhorov enlisted."
It is unclear whether Prokhorov and the retooled Right Cause are just not quite ready for prime time; whether they are being actively undermined by forces in the elite who would prefer not to upset the current balance of forces in the Duma and the government; or whether there is some other -- unseen -- strategy afoot.
Since the Right Cause project got off the ground earlier in the summer, I have viewed it as a central component of a move toward managed pluralism by the elite that would allow them to maintain control of the system and at the same time open a badly needed pressure valve.
Perhaps it is time to begin rethinking those assumptions.
-- Brian Whitmore