Opposing the Opposition

As the billionaire New Jersey Nets owner steps into his new role as Kremlin-approved opposition leader, what do voters actually think?

Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images
Alexey SAZONOV/AFP/Getty Images

MOSCOW — Dodging yet another question at the St. Petersburg Forum two weeks ago about whether he’ll re-seek the presidency, Dmitry Medvedev requested that "people be patient for a little while, to keep up the intrigue and the suspense." He added, "That will be more interesting." And yet, there seems to be movement in that inscrutable Moscow summer swamp of intrigue. Finally, things are happening. Finally, things are getting interesting.

To wit: On Saturday, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was easily elected leader of the Right Cause Party* at the party’s congress, just as expected. Speaking ex tempore, Prokhorov delivered a rather spicy, provocative speech. "Our country is called the Russian Federation, but judging by the leadership it is an empire where only the executive branch is working," he said. He spoke of an ongoing 100-year civil war in Russia, and laid out an ambitious, liberal party platform: slashing defense spending, introducing voluntary army service, returning power to the regions, reinstating the elections of mayors, and introducing the election of police chiefs and judges. He even said that political prisoners Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev should be paroled.

These ideas are usually propagated by the liberal opposition and are therefore roundly ignored by the state. But this is a billionaire, the third-richest man in Russia — a position one cannot maintain without the Kremlin’s warm feelings — voicing them. What’s more, all of this was carried on national TV, still the only real way that information can be broadly disseminated here and therefore a medium that tends to bar messengers of such liberal ideas. Arkady Dvorkovich, the president’s economic advisor, weighed in later on Twitter. "The majority of the issues voiced by Prokhorov are attractive to me," he said. "Some needed to be discussed further." And as if this weren’t enough, Medvedev himself decided to meet with the leader of this marginal, liberal party with no parliamentary representation to tell him that "some of your ideas line up with my own." Some of these ideas, the president said, are "revolutionary."

This is not particularly difficult to decipher. As I wrote earlier, the Right Cause Party is a Kremlin attempt to co-opt the well-educated, well-traveled, and well-off liberals increasingly dissatisfied with the system. Within the Russian political spectrum, they fall to the right. The idea is to create for this tier-two elite a party that would bring them into the system. It would also provide a steam valve for the so-called "pragmatists," liberals stuck in the increasingly stodgy and corrupt ruling party, United Russia. Leonid Gozman, the co-founder of Right Cause, has been very open about this. Prokhorov has been, too. "Let’s forget the word ‘opposition,’" he said at the party congress Saturday. "This is a word linked to marginal parties that have lost their connection to reality long ago."

This isn’t a vague reference. Prokhorov is calling out specific parties: Yabloko, the party of the first generation of post-Soviet liberals, all the other failed parties of the next decade, and their latest incarnation, the Party of the People’s Freedom, shortened as Parnas. The party is led by four liberal, ousted veterans of government: Boris Nemtsov, a prime minister under Yeltsin; Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former speaker of parliament; Vladimir Milov, a former deputy energy minister; and Mikhail Kasyanov, once a prime minister known as "Misha 2 percent" for his skimming of the proverbial milk. Their experience in government makes them obvious choices to a Westerner searching out democratic heroes, but to a Russian their experience taints them, and their fractiousness is still more of a turn-off.

While Prokhorov was delivering his "revolutionary" speech, Parnas was picketing across town. A couple days earlier, Parnas’s official petition to register as a party — and enter December’s parliamentary election — had been denied because 40 people on their list of 46,148 signatures were found to have been dead or minors or had recanted their support of the party. ("Those who recanted told us they had done so because of pressure from the Interior Ministry [the police] and the FSB," Milov told me.)

Parnas’s position is vague — it was founded as an anti-corruption party. But its target demographic is the white-collar, increasingly frustrated middle class; that is, exactly the same as the target demographic of Right Cause. Gozman makes no secret of this. "Our goals coincide 100 percent," he said. And both Parnas and Right Cause could be called "marginal," as Prokhorov put it: Parnas clocked in with 3 percent in Levada’s most recent poll; Right Cause got only 1. The difference? Gozman said, "We believe more in working inside the system." Which is a strange thing to say since Parnas is also trying to work inside the system: It is trying to run for parliament and eventually to field a presidential candidate. But Gozman meant something else.

Right Cause is not about working inside the system, it is about being the system. Back in 2006, Vladislav Surkov, the master puppeteer of Russian politics, told a congress of another party that became A Just Russia, that Russia needed a two-party system. "Society doesn’t have a ‘second leg’ onto which it can shift its weight when the first leg has fallen asleep," he said at the time. "Russia needs a second large party." That is, a second "party of power" to dilute — mostly in appearance — the monopoly of United Russia. And so Surkov created A Just Russia, a vaguely socialist party designed to appeal to the pensioners who were then taking to the street over their shrinking social benefits and pensions. Part of the platform, therefore, was progressive taxation and a luxury tax. Those measures never became a reality, but A Just Russia became the second leg. It was a voice of opposition in the Duma, constantly criticizing United Russia and voting against it. Which, of course, never meant anything because the party has only 38 seats out of 450.

This is the box-ticking formality that’s come to be known in Russia as "managed democracy." This is Vladimir Putin’s credo for controlling the rudder, for choosing how to react to external stimuli from the masses. Five years ago, the thorn in Putin’s side was geriatric rioters who remembered the glory days of the Soviet welfare state, so the state response was to shower them with oil money and to create a party that purported to be about their interests while not actually having the power to do anything about them.

These days, the group giving the Kremlin the most grief is the so-called "office plankton," the young people who see what life is like in the West, who want some control over their future, who are nauseated by the corruption around them — not out of envy, but on principle. This is the Russian bourgeoisie: people who have far more money than power, which is why they donate millions of rubles to anti-corruption crusader Alexey Navalny.

Were these bankers and managers to form their own party, it would be small — Levada estimates that they make up, at most, 15 percent of the Russian population — but it would still insert some unpredictability into the game, which the Kremlin cannot tolerate. The answer, of course, is to create a party modeled after the one that is already starting to form on its own, install a fully loyal leader, and give it a seat at the table. This is why Medvedev has just proposed a law lowering the electoral barrier to 5 percent, from 7. (Right Cause’s goal, Prokhorov keeps saying, is second place in the Duma, which, given the crushing majority United Russia will undoubtedly retain, will be rather small: 5 to 7 percent of seats, according to Boris Gryzlov, the current speaker of the Duma.)

Arithmetically speaking, it’s strange that, even after the A Just Russia experiment, talk in the Kremlin and around Prokhorov’s party continues to be about creating a two-party state. A Just Russia, so far, hasn’t gone anywhere, nor have the Communists or the right-wing nationalists at the Liberal Democratic party, which are also of the loyal "systemic opposition." That’s five state-certified parties. Do those other parties not count? Are A Just Russia and Right Cause going to share the title of "second leg"? Or will there now be three legs?

And there’s another question: Who will vote for this new second — or third — leg? Will the target demographic — highly educated and thoroughly cynical — buy it? Milov pointed out that the pragmatists who put results above the unsavoriness of certain bedfellows, are probably already voting for United Russia. That party, after all, still has all the resources; why bet on a new, unproven quantity?

I called a friend who helps run a fairly well-known bank in Moscow to ask him what he thought. He is in his 30s, wealthy, property-owning, globe-trotting, and a Russian patriot. He asked not to be named, because bankers, he said, should remain apolitical managers, like the Swiss. "Personally, though, I don’t really believe in this," he said of Prokhorov’s party. "It’s just another political technology, as they say. Clearly, they have to carve up public opinion into several channels and maintain their rule." The December parliamentary elections are irrelevant to him. He said, "What’s the point of choosing while not having a choice? Even without me, they’ll split up the votes. Even without me, everything will be just fine."

*In a previous article, we translated the party name as "Just Cause." A less confusing, and more widely accepted translation of the name is "Right Cause."

Julia Ioffe is a contributing writer to Politico Magazine and Huffington Post's Highline. She was a senior editor at the New Republic and was the Moscow correspondent for Foreign Policy and the New Yorker from 2009 to 2012.

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