Dispatch

Project Prokhorov

From the right angle, the Russian oligarch almost looks like a real presidential candidate. He's not.

MOSCOW — Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's announcement this week that he plans to take on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency next year certainly came as a surprise. Ever since the nickel tycoon and New Jersey Nets owner abandoned the leadership of a Kremlin-sanctioned liberal opposition party in September, departing in a sulk and making almost unheard-of public criticism of Vladislav Surkov, one of the Kremlin's most feared spin doctors, he has been nearly invisible -- or at least as invisible as a 6-foot-8-inch billionaire playboy can be.

Then, out of nowhere, this: "I have made a decision, and it is perhaps the most serious decision of my life," he said to a room of journalists at the Interfax news agency in central Moscow on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 12. "I am going to stand in the presidential elections."

Our collective jaw dropped, briefly. Over the past 10 days, a lot has changed in Russia. Saturday's huge protests against vote-rigging in Dec. 4's parliamentary elections that filled Moscow's Bolotnaya Square were an unprecedented show of defiance to Putin's authority -- and a moment after which the country's politics will never be quite the same. This is certainly not the cusp of revolution, however, and the last oligarch to play around with politics in Putin's Russia ended up in a Siberian prison. Has enough really changed that the third-richest man in the country is prepared to risk his $18 billion fortune in a fight with Putin that he has little real chance of winning?

The short answer? No. "After the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square, when it became clear that the urban educated class has turned against the authorities and isn't hiding its position, the Kremlin decided to put Prokhorov forward to neutralize this protest energy," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin advisor who heads the for the National Strategy Institute in Moscow, in an interview with the Russian website Gazeta.ru.

The idea that Prokhorov just sensed a new political atmosphere brewing and went charging in with a genuine presidential bid seems even more unlikely when you consider how he behaved at the news conference at which he announced his candidacy. If he were really going to take on one of the world's most vindictive politicians unsanctioned, one would imagine he'd be in it to win it. There should have been penetrating criticism of Putin's legacy, a searing attack on his style, and an rousing argument that popular opinion is slowly turning and that he, Mikhail Dmitrievich Prokhorov, is the man to push it along quicker than anyone has dreamed possible -- the one man to finally rid the Russian people of their emperor.

Instead, Prokhorov refused to say whether he agreed with the rhetoric of the protest movement or whether he would appear before the next major opposition rally, scheduled for Dec. 24. He refused to even put forward the slightest hint about the presidential manifesto on which he planned to run. For someone who had just taken the self-declared most important decision of his life, he sounded like a man without a clue about what he stands for -- or, more likely, a man waiting for instructions.

How else can the bizarre statement that he would not give any interviews for another month be explained? It's hardly the most conventional move for a presidential candidate entering the race less than three months before the vote and with an unclear manifesto. Most tellingly, aside from a few platitudes about the need for change, Prokhorov did not offer a single meaningful criticism of Putin.

With the growing protest mood and slipping ratings for Putin, the Kremlin may well have thought that it needed to give March 4's presidential election a more convincing veneer of legitimacy. Prokhorov will scoop up some votes of the up-and-coming middle class, but there's little danger of him coming close to Putin, as the majority of Russians still despise the oligarchs. The Prokhorov gambit, in all probability, is the latest brainchild of Surkov, the powerful Kremlin spin doctor whom Prokhorov criticized last fall. Over the past decade, Surkov, as the president's chief of staff and chief ideologue, has been tasked with creating and overseeing what has been described by critics and even Kremlin officials themselves as a "managed democracy."

All the way back in 2005, liberal politician and erstwhile presidential candidate Irina Khakamada said in an interview that there was no democracy in Russia, "only a virtual matrix of democratic space" that was managed from within the Kremlin. "It copies reality. If there is a democratic opposition to the Kremlin, the Kremlin automatically creates a different one loyal to the Kremlin." Back then, Khakamada said that her main problem when she decided to stand against Putin for the presidency in 2004 was that people thought she was part of the matrix.

In previous elections, Putin has had no real challengers. There are the usual contenders from the "systemic opposition" -- the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who will stand again this time. Each has garnered between 5 and 15 percent of the vote. Other would-be challengers, such as the liberal former chess champion Garry Kasparov or the radical Eduard Limonov, have not made it onto the ballot before.

Although most Russians suspect that supposedly independent politicians are actually playing a Kremlin-assigned role, there is also a level of plausible deniability from the Kremlin's side about its managed creations, leaving everyone playing a never-ending, ridiculous guessing game. Is Prokhorov carrying out the orders of the Kremlin to a T, reading from a carefully crafted script? Does he have genuine political ambitions but is only acting after checking with the Kremlin? Or perhaps he's actually acting entirely on his own initiative -- but will be allowed to continue because he is currently useful to the Kremlin. Most independent analysts are buying the most cynical version. "I don't have the tiniest doubt that he is doing anything other than what Putin has told him to do," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a liberal political analyst. "This is very clearly the hasty reaction of the authorities to what happened in Moscow on Saturday."

Politicians are people and not robots, of course, and however tightly organized the matrix is, there is a chance that the actors could suddenly veer off script, as Prokhorov himself did in September. Proudly installed as head of Right Cause, the liberal party widely acknowledged to be a Kremlin project, Prokhorov had a falling out with Surkov over a number of controversial politicians the oligarch wanted to include in the party. Surkov maneuvered the Right Cause leader out of the party, leading Prokhorov to call an emotional news conference in his office. He accused Surkov of manipulating party delegates to vote against him, including by introducing "clone" delegates into the conference hall whom nobody had even seen before. "There is a puppet master in this country who long ago privatized the political system," said Prokhorov to the world's press. "His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov. Real politics are impossible as long as such people rule the political process." Well, yes, we all thought, rather confused. We knew that, and so did you, surely? Prokhorov promised he would meet with Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev and engineer Surkov's sacking. Unsurprisingly, he failed.

On Monday, the newly minted candidate insisted that he has not spoken with Surkov or Putin since September, and he said he would deal with the problem of Surkov by "becoming his boss." Given that Prokhorov lost the last round with the Kremlin's darkest spin doctor, though, the idea that the oligarch is now picking a real fight with both Surkov and his ultimate boss, Putin, seems absurd. The oligarch simply has too much to lose. "Back in September, Prokhorov was like a little boy who has had his sweets stolen from him in the playground," says Piontkovsky. "He tried to go running to the teachers, but they just ignored him and told him to get on with it."

Want a sign that the previous conflict with Surkov was real and the new run for presidency is fake? Look at the way that the tightly controlled state media handled the two incidents. Back in September, Russian state television didn't broadcast Prokhorov's outburst at all, while the Kremlin-funded English-language international station, Russia Today, made no reference to the accusations the oligarch leveled against Surkov in its report about the resignation. This week, it was a very different story. The state-controlled Channel One opened its evening news bulletin with a segment on the billionaire's presidential bid, while Russia Today ran a video with the chirpy headline "Prokhorov Picks Fight With Putin." Of course, neither channel ran any direct criticism of Putin from Prokhorov, because there was none.

Adding to the suspicion that it is all a setup is the fact that former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a longtime ally of Putin and a fiscal liberal who was sacked in September, said in an interview a few hours before Prokhorov's bid was announced that he wanted to go back into politics as part of a liberal party. Prokhorov said the two men shared many views and might end up working together. The timing seemed awfully convenient.

The final piece of evidence for the prosecution is the extremely rare, short interview that Surkov gave to a Russian blogger last week. He said that Russia lacked a mass liberal party and that angry urban elites should be "given" parliamentary representation. The Kremlin likes to direct politics from above, which is why the grassroots organization of the recent street protests has disturbed it so much. Project Prokhorov appears to be Surkov's plan to "give" liberal Russians a voice. Unfortunately, the plan seems so transparent that it is unlikely to work. "I was at a round table of intellectuals when the news came in about Prokhorov," says Piontkovsky. "Everybody burst out laughing."

So if it is all a big bluff, what's in it for Prokhorov? "He wants to be prime minister under a Vladimir Putin presidency," claimed Belkovsky. "He has said this several times in private conversations." The idea, which could create a sense of renewal in the government, sounds plausible enough -- until you see the difference in height between the two men. It would certainly be surprising for Putin, a politician famously obsessed with his macho image, to appoint as his subordinate a basketball-playing billionaire who towers over him by more than a foot and makes joint photo opportunities look ridiculous.

It's more likely that Prokhorov has been promised a lesser government role, or been promised nothing, and has simply been informed of the script that he is expected to read from. "That's how relations work between Putin and the oligarchs," says Piontkovsky. "If he doesn't do what he is told, he could lose his billions instantly."

YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images

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