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Will a Center-Right Party Led by a Billionaire Become a Game Changer in Russian Politics?

File Photo of Mikhail ProhkorovLast month Right Cause, an all but defunct and already decomposing center-right liberal party cobbled together by the Kremlin three years ago, was given a new lease of life. The party elected billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov as its new leader. Prokhorov is Russia's third richest man according to Forbes magazine, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion. What is Prokhorov hoping to achieve by leading a party that has lost almost its entire support base and is currently hovering around two percent of voter support? What is the Kremlin's objective in giving its clear backing to Prokhorov's project?

Until last month Prokhorov showed significantly less interest in politics than in precious metals, beautiful women, aqua-bikes and wild parties at swanky French skiing resorts. But he agreed to lead Right Cause after some heavy prodding by Alexander Voloshin, a former Kremlin chief of staff and the current go-to-man regarding sensitive political decisions between President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Allegedly, Voloshin secured Medvedev's eager blessing for resuscitating the liberal party project, while Vladimir Putin responded to the idea with an indifferent shrug of his shoulders, which is a blessing of sorts.

At the party's congress in late June, Prokhorov was elected sole leader of Right Cause. He has promised to lead the party into the State Duma at parliamentary elections on December 4 and make it the second party of power. He has even pledged to run for prime minister himself if his party is successful in the polls.

In order to achieve this, Prokhorov suggested broadening the party's base by embracing populist themes and positioning itself not as a party of Russian business, but as a party of Russian independent households, or the middle class. Prokhorov has also sought to distance the party from liberal oppositionists to the Kremlin. In turn the liberal opposition has slammed Prokhorov's party as a Kremlin project that is meant to divert disaffected voters from backing the real opposition to the tandem's rule.

Indeed, some Russian analysts have argued that the whole idea behind Prokhorov's party is to provide a convenient punching bag for United Russia and Putin's Popular Front in order to maximize United Russia's performance in the polls. Strong criticism of an opponent could be a more effective victory strategy for United Russia than focusing on the catalogue of its own achievements. And it is quite possible that Prokhorov has taken up politics precisely to provide that target.

Others argue that Right Cause under a charismatic and energetic leader like Prokhorov, who has virtually unlimited financial resources at his disposal, could serve as a game changer in Russian politics by providing the Russian middle class in major urban areas with the opportunity for meaningful political participation. It would answer a brooding call for change among this disaffected group of voters who otherwise may have stayed home on election day.

Indeed, Russians' attitude toward Prokhorov has improved, according to the latest survey by the Public Opinion Foundation. In July, 12 percent of those surveyed said they liked him, while in May the figure was 8 percent. Those who like Prokhorov are usually men aged 55 to 64 and people with high incomes ­ 19 percent of both target groups, and professionals ­ 18 percent of whom said they like him.

According to the July survey, 14 percent liked the fact that Prokhorov was elected head of Right Cause up by ten percent in May. At the same time, 83 percent of respondents had not heard anything about the new challenges for the party or the proposals for development of the country's political system, which Prokhorov announced at the congress. Eight percent liked his ideas and six percent did not.

In a show of official support for Prokhorov, Medvedev rushed to meet him in person the day after he had been elected leader of Right Cause. Medvedev has given his approval to some of Prokhorov's sweeping ideas, like reinstituting direct elections of mayors for Moscow and St. Petersburg. This prompted speculation that Medvedev may one day agree to lead Right Cause either as president or as a former president.

What is Prokhorov hoping to achieve by leading a party that has lost almost its entire support base and is currently hovering around 2 percent of voter support? What is the Kremlin's objective in giving its clear backing to Prokhorov's project? Is it really aiming at providing United Russia with a convenient target for criticism? Or is it toying with providing Medvedev with a springboard for his nomination to a second presidential term despite Putin? Would the Russian urban middle class vote for Prokhorov and his party? How would the West view Prokhorov's party against the die-hard liberal opposition of Mikhail Kasyanov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and Vladimir Milov? Would a liberal party led by a billionaire serve as a game changer in Russian politics?

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

For a start, based on Prokhorov's initial declarations, we cannot yet say for sure whether the party in question will even retain its name, let alone its position in the political spectrum.

It is important to note that Russia already has a genuine center-right party, Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party, which has a stable (and growing) constituency, a clear program, a place in the electoral process and brand recognition. Whether there is room for another putative center-right party is unclear.

The parties with the most in common with the old Right Cause were some Western neo-conservative parties, which in America comprise the intellectual drivers within the Republican Party. For some observers, recent developments have given Right Cause the regrettable image of a party ready to sacrifice even its beliefs (and certainly its leadership) for the sake of increased political power. This somewhat cynical interpretation is not without merit.

The dictatorial authority that Prokhorov has imposed on his newly-acquired asset may be suitable to a corporate purchase, but it has very unpleasant analogies in party politics. One is reminded of the democratic centralism and leader of the party images that belong in the 20th century. A right-wing party with a dynamic and excitable leader will inevitably draw very disturbing parallels. Some wonder whether Prokhorov is completely tone deaf when it comes to politics. Some say that his intellectual interests being rather minimal, the new owner may not know enough history to recognize the questionable political image he may be creating for himself.

So what did Prokhorov buy? He has discarded the old leadership and the old ideology (the political product.) What remains is a rather shaky distribution infrastructure (the regional offices) where many of the personnel may resign in disgust over the betrayal of their sincerely-held political beliefs. Not everyone is willing to sell their convictions and dignity to a billionaire, who's most notorious acquisition before Right Cause was a basketball team in New Jersey.

As to political activity, Prokhoov here again demonstrates very questionable political judgement. Other political parties ­ and political financial regulators ­ will challenge and resist the use of private billions to support a "pocket" political property. Prokhorov's business competitors past, present and future will object to seeing their business adversary gaining political power and the ability to harm their business interests further.

Furthermore, Prokhorov as a political figure will be subject to intense official and non-official scrutiny. He will have to disclose his wealth and its structure, or this will be done for him by his adversaries. Analysts consider that he has already accumulated enough negative political baggage to make himself unelectable in fair elections.

There are very substantial reasons why in the West people involved in business and wealthy individuals usually do not involve themselves in public politics. The exceptions are very rare. Prokhorov seems to be ignoring the fact that running a political party and getting elected is not like running a corporation or a basketball team. If he believes that there is no difference, then he is in for a surprise.

Will the whole acquisition of a political party by a toy-collecting Russia nouveau-riche billionaire become a political "game changer?" Very unlikely. By the way, Prokhorov's face time with Medvedev comprises a brief episode right after the acquisition. Who arranged this meeting is not publicly known. Does the meeting suggest substantial interest on Medvedev's part? Consider this: Medvedev meets frequently with the leader of the Communist Party Gennady Zyuganov ­ does this fact imply that Medvedev is aligning himself with the communists? One thinks not. The same logic applies to Prokhorov's fresh acquisition.

Elena Miskova, Managing Partner, LEFF GROUP Government and Public Relations, Moscow

There is a niche for Prokhorov's party in Russian politics. The Kremlin's rationale for giving its backing to this political project has been in providing a political outlet for a large pool of disgruntled and disaffected urban middle class voters who will never vote for United Russia.

The objective is not so much to provide United Russia with a convenient punching bag (although this would come in handy as well) as to consolidate United Russia's social-conservative base (in the Russian sense of this term, meaning pensioners and blue-collar workers), but to capture the disaffected young, relatively affluent and socially active urbanites to prevent them from forming a serious political opposition to the regime.

But filling a niche and securing the Kremlin's backing are not sufficient for the party to do well at the polls. A lot depends on the party's agenda, its leadership appeal and campaign tactics. It is here that serious questions remain.

Prokhorov can obviously capitalize on his role as a fresh face in Russian politics (all other party leaders look ossified compared to him), his business acumen and money, his handsome looks and his intriguing status as Russia's most eligible bachelor, but he is for all intents and purposes a political novice. Until now he has never dabbled in politics or even made a public speech (although he did well in direct discussions with workers at the Norilsk Nickel plant where he served as general manager in the 1990s). His sense in politics is untested and his ability to inspire people, although present in his corporate boardrooms, remains to be proven.

Prokhorov is obviously a very talented and capable man (otherwise he would not be a billionaire) and he has proven his capacity to excel at many things at once. But there are projects where he has failed or has not been spectacularly successful. One is his leadership of the Russian National Biathlon Association ­ the Russian National Team under his leadership was a complete failure at the last Olympics and last year's World Cup.

Prokhorov's party currently has two percent support according to the latest poll conducted by the Levada Center. It has a fragmented base and lacks other strong and charismatic leaders. It would be a huge feat were it to gain seven percent of the vote and make it into the next Duma. Prokhorov's own target of 15 percent, and a second place finish, appears to be unattainable.

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