Mikhail Prokhorov, the lightning rod

Prokhorov, the world’s 32nd richest man, has announced he’ll contest the Russian presidential elections against ‘alpha dog’ Putin in March. That’s the text of the message. But, as things so often are in Russia, it’s merely the camouflage for the really meaningful subtext.

But before we try to decypher it, a personal note: Misha (the diminutive version of his Christian name) and I have much in common: we were both born in Russia, we both spend much time in France and… well, that’s about it. From then on, it’s nothing but differences: he’s 6’8”, I’m not; he still lives in Russia, I don’t; he’s rich, I’m not; he was charged by Courchevel police with running a prostitution ring in 2007, I wasn’t. (The French later dismissed the charges when it turned out the imported Russian ladies were strictly for the private use of Misha and his retinue. Though at the time Misha swore he’d never darken France’s doorstep again, he has since softened his stance. And the next year his acolytes gave Misha a splendid birthday present: they bought the disco in Courchevel’s centre and closed it down, thus depriving the town of the focal point to its nightlife. The French call this sort of thing revanchism.)

And now the difference that really matters: I tend to make serious decisions on my own; Misha doesn’t, and this probably goes for what he calls ‘the most serious decison’ of his life: to stand for President. In his seriousness stakes, this must then rank higher than the decision Misha took last June, when he got out of his Norilsk Nickel (the world’s largest producer of that metal) and entered politics to form the Right Cause party. As is widely believed in Russia, that decision was made for him by Medvedev, the alpha dog’s poodle. Now why would Russia’s pseudo-president encourage a rival party to appear?

No Russian would ask that question, but a Westerner might. We are used to politics that, the odd bit of corruption, mendacity and double-dealing notwithstanding, are generally above board. The Russians, on the other hand, aren’t even aware that the board exists. They know, for example, that oligarchs like Misha aren’t businessmen in our sense of the word. They were, in the Russian phrase, ‘appointed oligarchs’ when the ruling KGB camarilla decided to go semi-legit internationally. Misha, for example, came out of nowhere in 1993 to become a billionaire overnight by purchasing Norilsk Nickel, whose market value was stratospheric. How did he get the money? Saved it up by taking bag lunches?

Most Westerners don’t ask this question because it doesn’t occur to them. Most Russians don’t ask it because they know the answer: Misha’s ‘business’ partner in the transaction was Vladimir Potanin, then Deputy Prime Minister in charge of privatisation. This sort of partnership might be called conflict of interest elsewhere, but not in Russia. There it was merely yet another would-be oligarch rewarded for his loyalty to the camarilla and entrusted with handling much of its capital. As Khodorkovsky’s case shows, such continuing loyalty is the precondition not only for getting the appointment, but also for staying in the job (or at large). No oligarch can remain at that perch if he shows the slightest disloyalty to the KGB, FSB, SVR, PDQ, SOB or whatever set of initials is really running Russia.

For months before the Duma elections a week ago, the camarilla had been aware that real opposition to Putin, their front man, was brewing. They responded in exactly the same way as the KGB used to handle dissent when it no longer suited their purposes to murder millions. Around the time of the Nixon détente in the late sixties, they created a bogus dissident movement they could control, thus infiltrating and emasculating the real dissent that was gathering strength. Using the same stratagem, Medvedev (well, Putin really) egged Misha on to enter the political arena last summer, to see if he could function as a lightning rod for the camarilla. After a short trial run, the Right Cause party folded: it had passed the test, and there was no need for it to enter Duma politics in earnest. But Misha was kept on tap for bigger, if not necessarily better, things.

Now the bigger things have arrived, and Misha has manfully assumed the function of a lightning rod, making sure that any real oppostion to the alpha dog would be run into the ground. This is of course conjecture, but, when glasnost is merely a figure of speech, an educated guess is often more reliable than straight reportage. My guess is that the deal struck somewhere in the Kremlin is that, should the ploy work, and Putin is ensconced for the next 12 years, Misha would get a top job, possibly Medvedev’s. Or else he may be allowed to function in the capacity of Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, ‘loyal’ being the operative world. A remote possibility also exists that the camarilla has decided to appoint Misha president, just as it once appointed him oligarch. If that happens, the West will be talking about the wind of change or whatever cliché will rule the day. The Russians won’t. They’ll know that ‘the wind returneth again according to its circuits.’ Or, as they say in Courchevel, plus ça change.



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