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Russia's Right Cause: Bogus or Embryonic Opposition

The cordial treatment accorded the Right Cause Party and its leader Mikhail Prokhorov invites speculations.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 6/29/2011, 6:58 PM / Last Update: 6/30/2011, 6:31 AM

Mikhail Prokhorov, the new head of the Right Cause party , owns an NBA team (the New Jersey Nets), is worth $18 billion and wants to become Russia's Prime Minister, a post currently headed by Vladimir Putin. 

At his party's Congress,  broadcast on state television (that is very selective about giving air time to parties that do not support the Putin-Medvedev tandem) Prokhorov stated.

 

Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development. We need to take back parliament, in the near future become the second largest party, and then later, the first.

The oligarch and aspiring politician also calls for restoring single-member districts in the Russian legislature, a move that would bypass the restrictions on party registration and allow new local talent to be elected. He would restore mayoralty elections to Moscow and St. Petersburg and give the victor the powers of a provincial governor. The appointed governors in other provinces would have broader powers, particularly if they were successful, and perhaps they would have an expanded tax base so they would not be dependent on the central government.

The most controversial statement was a call for the release of imprisoned former executives of Yukos Oil, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev.

These views represent a sharp departure and contrast with the policies of the Putin decade and would normally land a politician in deep trouble. Instead the press displayed pictures of Prokhorov sitting face-to-face with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, with Medvedev delivering a complementary response on the official Kremlin website

Your ideas correspond on some points with my own views. At the St Petersburg International Economic Forum, I spoke about the need to decentralize power and have already given the instruction to set up working groups in which the regional governors and local government heads will take part.

Some of your ideas are more radical in nature and require more reflection, but one thing is clear, and that is that centralized power in any country, even in as complex a federal state as Russia, cannot continue forever. There was a time when we had to 'tighten the screws' as it were, in order to get our institutions working and establish a state administration system capable of carrying out the instructions given, because the system had deteriorated during the 1990s, unfortunately. But of course, it's one thing to 'tighten the screws', and another thing to turn them too far.

What explains the hospitable treatment received by Prokhorov as compared with the invalidationof PARNAS, the Popular Freedom Party that has a similar agenda, due to alleged irregularities in 79 out of 46,148 names on the party's membership list?

The answers can be divided into the cynical and the strategic.

The cynics will argue that Right Cause, as Prokhorov himself remarked, does not view itself as a party of opposition- "We need to remove the word 'opposition' from our lexicon," said Prokhorov. It is designed to siphon off voters who want more liberalism .

This will enable the tandem to pose as populists saving the people from the grips of the neo-capitalist Right Cause.

Others see the move as system building.  There will be two safe parties competing with each other, thus allowing the formation of a more liberal voice in politics, prior to transitioning gradually into genuine two-party competition. A parallel can be found in Italy prior to the First World War where there was a "Left" party and a "Right" party representing the same establishments. The difference is that that controlled competition system was prior to the era of mass universal suffrage and therefore the divisions were more containable.

A variant of this theory is that it resembles the French 5th Republic that began in 1958. Vladimir Putin views the political class that ruled Russia between the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 until his arrival in the year 2000 as a failed political generation that must not be allowed to return to power.

Likewise the political fragmentation and plethora of parties prevalent in that lost decade must be curbed. This recalls Charles de Gaulle and his contempt for the 4th Republic (1946-1958) and its politicians. The 5th Republic was designed to promote a two-party system and a clear choice. Perhaps this is too charitable an interpretation and it is inferior to the first theory in terms of simplicity.