The fight over Russia’s future

The fight over Russia’s future

Among old Russia hands, the smart thing to say about Mikhail D. Prokhorov, the billionaire who is running for president, is that he is a puppet of the Kremlin. He’s not a real opposition politician, the argument goes, he is merely a liberal-sounding insider who has been given Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin’s blessing to compete to make the race look more legitimate and to split the liberal vote.

All of this is true. But when I interviewed Prokhorov in Moscow a few days ago, I realized that it missed the most important point - what Prokhorov’s candidacy, and the man himself, tells us about the battle raging today inside the Russian governing elite.

When people take to the streets to challenge their regimes, particularly in societies that had been dismissed as apathetic, the most exciting story is the protesters. Many of them are fresh faces and they can be painted in the idealistic colors of the outsider.

The opposition is certainly important - and it usually also has the virtue of being right. But the fate of the protest movement is very often decided not on the raucous streets where the opposition marches but in the grim offices where the governing establishment decides how it will respond and how it can hang on to the loot it acquired while in power.

That was the case in the Soviet Union 20 years ago, when three career Communist Party officials gathered in a hunting resort in Belarus to sign the death warrant of the regime that created them. It was true of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, which was led by a man who had served as prime minister and central bank chief for the president he was defying. And it was decisive last year in Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak lost the support of the military.

Prokhorov’s decision to run in the presidential election in March is, in the words of the man himself, a sign that the Russian elite, too, is seriously divided.

Prokhorov made no bones about being a political neophyte and a candidate of the elite. “It’s not easy to pass all the barriers,” he said, referring to the intentionally onerous criteria a candidate must meet to contest the presidency. “You need to have more or less a green light to pass to the ballot.”

When I asked if he meant a green light from the Kremlin, Prokhorov insisted that politics at the top were more complicated. “It’s more difficult,” he said. “You need to have a green light from a majority of the Russian elite.”
But that elite, Prokhorov said, is not monolithic: “The Kremlin is not, like, one person or two people - there are wings, liberal wings and conservative wings. It’s an ongoing fight between them. This is the nature of Russia right now, that even within the parties, within the government, in the Kremlin, we have these wings. So it is a fight between the liberal and conservative wings: What is the future of Russia.”

Prokhorov said the conservative wing was “very cynical.” 

“They need stability at any price. And they are ready to pay any price, even instead of future development,” he said. “They are afraid of competition, they are afraid of development.”

But the liberals are ascendant: “I think that the liberal part of the elite is bigger and bigger from day to day, because I have a lot of calls from different levels, and they really express their support for my candidacy.”
These establishment liberals, of whom Prokhorov is very much one, believe “the era of managed democracy is over.” As Prokhorov said, “We now have all the pieces in place to move very fast to being a real democratic country.”

But Prokhorov wants that shift to happen by consensus within the elite. When I asked him if an Orange Revolution could happen in Russia, he was aghast.

“I am against any revolution, because I know the history of Russia. Every time we have a revolution, it was a very bloody period,” he said. “So I like very fast evolution.”

That evolution should be achieved, he believes, by a deal within the governing elite: “We need to sit at the table - the liberal wing and conservative wing. We need to sit together, to speak in a very open way, and make a decision - what is the future of Russia.”

Garry Kasparov, the chess champion and opposition leader, told me these internal divisions were a reason to hope that the Kremlin did not have the stomach for severe repression.

“This option is taken very seriously in the Kremlin,” Kasparov said. “But it is all about the balance of power within the ruling elite, because now they all understand, if Putin goes, maybe 10, 15, maybe 20 percent of those who are surrounding him and making this core of the elite, they will be facing trial; they can lose money. But most of them - 80 percent at least, maybe more - will be making deals with the new government. Maybe giving up some money, but securing their fortunes. If they go into oppressive mode, then the numbers will change and any revolutionary explosion will blow them up.”

If it comes to a choice between hanging on to political power or hanging on to at least some of their Swiss bank accounts, Kasparov is betting that 80 percent of the elite will be prepared to do a deal. Prokhorov’s political debut could be a very important sign that Kasparov is right. 

(This abridged column was released by Reuters.)