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."



The Era of Apathy

After a decade of being treated like children, Russia's electorate is finally finding its voice.

MOSCOW — The scope of the protests that have followed Russia's Dec. 4 parliamentary elections, which protesters claim were rigged, have not only shocked Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his cohort -- it has shocked the opposition as well. And Kremlin officials have no one to blame but themselves for this swelling protest movement.

The first protests kicked off that Sunday night, following the ballot, with a demonstration of approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people in the central Moscow area of Chistye Prudy. The protest turned ugly when riot police attacked protesters marching toward the Central Electoral Commission building, dispersing demonstrators, sometimes roughly, and detaining people at random. More than 200 of the detained -- including some opposition leaders, journalists, and well-known activists -- were held overnight in crowded cells with no food and no access to lawyers. Administrative trials started the next day, sentencing protesters to 15 days of incarceration, officially for resisting police orders but in fact for merely expressing their discontent with the authorities.

The following days saw more protests against Putin and the ruling United Russia party in Moscow and other large Russian cities. They culminated in a massive rally of over 50,000 people in Moscow's Bolotnaya Square on Dec. 10 (and this is a very conservative assessment, as the opposition is claiming approximately 100,000). The protesters were met with a massive police and military presence -- armored personnel carriers on the ground, roaring helicopters in the sky -- which spoke of potential trouble, but the day passed without a single provocative act by the demonstrators nor a single use of force by the police.

The demonstrators wore white ribbons on their coats, and many carried multicolored balloons and flowers, emphasizing the nonviolent and nonpartisan spirit of the protest. Smiling young women pressed white carnations and chrysanthemums on young uniformed servicemen, and some shyly accepted those gifts of peace, giggling like school kids. Democrats, communists, anarchists, radical lefties, and people with no political convictions chanted: "I'm a citizen of my state!" "We want fair elections!" "Our opinion matters!" That evening, state-owned television channels featured short reports about the massive demonstration. They simply had to.

What caused this extraordinary awakening of Russian citizens, who have previously appeared sullenly acquiescent to the erosion of democracy during the Putin era? Russia's Interior Ministry was quick to blame social networks for "threatening the foundations of the society" and "contributing to the rise in extremist views." Putin, predictably, is blaming everything on Western interference, bashing U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for supposedly sending a "signal" to the opposition to destabilize Russia. In fact, however, two signature blunders by Putin's own regime served as the trigger for this current round of protests.

First, it all started with President Dmitry Medvedev's revelation on Sept. 24 that Putin would run for the Russian presidency next year, while he would lead United Russia in the parliamentary vote. Putin himself said, "I want to say directly: An agreement over what to do in the future was reached between us several years ago."

Western media and policymakers often explain the lack of pluralism in Russia by pointing to how Russians love Putin's strong rule, his populist machismo. That may be so, but Russians, as the elections this month have shown, have also become increasingly unhappy with more than a decade of so-called "soft" authoritarianism. When Russians heard that what they long suspected was coming true, many felt they had no option but to take to the streets. This frustration alone, though, was probably not enough to convince tens of thousands to gather in Bolotnaya Square for the first time since the stormy 1990s. It was the brazen acknowledgment by the head of government that the decision had actually been made long ago and that the public -- children that they are -- simply hadn't needed to know about it. It was this gross, infantilizing condescension that became the tipping point. The realization that the authorities are not even trying to pretend that public opinion matters, that individual choice matters, that voters have decision-making power, was just too bitter a pill to swallow.

After the parliamentary election results began coming in, the Kremlin made its second painfully obvious mistake. Exit polls for Moscow that showed United Russia's share of the vote at a meager 27 percent miraculously disappeared from the website of the Public Opinion Foundation, a leading polling agency known for its loyalty to the government. While people around the world were watching the protest movement unfold in Moscow, all that Russians could see on federal television were wildlife programs and "nothing's happening" news.

Independent journalists and the public were overwhelmed with disgust. A correspondent of Kommersant FM radio, Stanislav Kucher, addressed Russia's infamously kowtowed broadcast journalists with a stinging rebuke: "Thousands of people are pouring into the streets of both capitals of what's for now our common homeland for the first time in 10 years, to say what they think about the elections. And yet the same television stations that show the president say not a word about the protests -- that's just unprofessional." Kucher added that television people hid "information from millions of people"-- at minimum manipulating their attitude and at maximum disgracing themselves and their profession.

The official information blockade only contributed to the protest mood. More than 35,000 people signed up for the Dec. 10 rally via Facebook, and after the initial hard-line reaction and threats of using brutal force against the protesters, the authorities had to relent. The opposition not only received an official sanction for the demonstration, but the authorities also agreed to provide a "corridor" for those choosing to gather closer to Red Square, so that those protesters could march across the bridge to the other bank of the Moscow River and join the bigger crowd.

So what comes next?

Moscow is no Tahrir, and what's happening in Russia at the moment is not yet a revolution. But Dec. 10 was indeed a historic moment: Thousands of Russians made it clear that they would no longer be ignored. The authorities also realized that hard-line measures and broadcast blockades would only worsen their position and that they must take their critics into account.

The period until the March 4 presidential election is now of paramount importance. Even if Putin does return to the presidency at that time, the powerful voice of discontent played out in the streets and through social media will prove impossible for him to ignore. The era of apathy is officially over.

Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg