Who stands to benefit from the reshuffling of political forces in the wake of Right Cause's embarrassing public meltdown and Mikhail Prokhorov's abrupt exit from the scene?
As improbable as this might seem, an increasing number of commentators seem to think it might be Yabloko, which has been pretty much a non-factor in Russian politics since the party failed to get into the State Duma in the 2003 elections.
This might just be wishful thinking. Like many Western Russia-watchers, I had high hopes for Yabloko in the 1990s -- hopes that were ultimately never realized.
Nevertheless, given the amount of media attention it has received, a potential Yabloko renaissance is worth examining.
Yabloko founder Grigory Yavlinsky, who stepped down as party chairman in 2008 and pretty much disappeared from public life ever since, made a high-profile return to the political stage this month.
He will lead Yabloko's party list in the December 4 Duma elections. He has been getting a surprising amount of media oxygen lately. And with two Kremlin-friendly projects, the pro-business Right Cause and the ostensibly center-left A Just Russia, on the skids, there might just be an opening for him to lead his party into the Duma.
"Indisputably there is one beneficiary that will gain from the [Right Cause] scandal. It is the Yabloko party, the constituency of which may be joined by part of the Right Cause consistency," political analyst Dmitry Orlov told Interfax. "My forecast is that the scandal will result in a certain increase in voter support for Yabloko party which in the future may come very close to clearing the barrier."
In a video posted on his blog, Yavlinsky explained to supporters his reasons for returning to the political arena, saying that there was a real chance for change. "I don't have the right to stand aside," he said. "I don't know if I will be able to change anything. But I don't have the right not to try to do this with all my strength."
WATCH THE VIDEO:
But as anybody who follows Russian politics knows, it is not enough for Yavlinsky to run a strong campaign and capture the constituencies that would have otherwise voted for Right Cause or A Just Russia. And it also won't be enough for him use the Internet to bring new voters to the polls who would have otherwise stayed home (which he has indicated he plans to do).
In Russia, nobody gets into the Duma unless the ruling elite wants them to get into the Duma -- that is the reality.
But another reality is that a significant part of the ruling elite wants a more pluralistic Duma to reflect the aspirations of an emerging middle class and to deflect growing dissent among the liberal intelligentsia and professional classes.
So are the Kremlin's political managers who dreamed up and then abandoned the Right Cause project (and the A Just Russia project before it) ready to dance with Yavlinsky? And just as importantly, is the famously prickly and independent Yavlinsky ready to dance with them?
Some of the traditional tea leaves one needs to read to assess such things suggest this might be the case.
For example, just today (as I was writing this blog!) Yavlinsky was featured in an extensive 35-minute interview on the state-run Vesti-24 channel's flagship interview program "Mnenye" (Opinion), something that would have been unthinkable just months ago. Things like that don't happen by accident in Russia.
WATCH THE VIDEO:
A recent story in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" analyzing the causes and consequences of the Right Cause debacle suggested that Yavlinsky could conceivably play the role in the Duma that was intended for Prokhorov:
The impression is that it is Yavlinsky who will be back in theDuma after the election, either in the one-man faction or even perhaps in a fully-fledged one. Moscow will then be able then to demonstrate a new Duma to the West, a Duma with elements ofdemocracy.
It will obviate the necessity for Right Cause. After all, the West will sooner accept Yavlinsky than Prokhorov the oligarch. This turn of events will increase legitimacy of theRussian parliament which is something that will suit both the Russian powers-that-be and the West.
I'll be watching this with interest in the coming weeks, but for the time being color me skeptical. As a reporter in Russia in the 1990s, I watched Yavlinsky at close range and interacted with him often. I have a hard time seeing him playing the obedient role of a Kremlin-sanctioned "opposition" figure. Moreover, Vladislav Surkov's team of Kremlin spin doctors knows this much better than I do and will probably balk at taking a risk on such a defiant figure.
And finally, one has to wonder: Would a housebroken Yavlinsky still be Yavlinsky?
-- Brian Whitmore
NOTE: THIS POST HAS BEEN UPDATED TO INCLUDE THE VESTI-24 VIDEO