If you’re a Russian billionaire and want to stay that way, funding an opposition party usually figures high on the nyet-to-do list. The last oligarch to dabble in politics, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, got sent to a Siberian labor camp in 2003 and will likely be there till 2017. So why would Mikhail Prokhorov—metals magnate and owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team—announce that he’s stepping in to lead a new center-right party called Right Cause? Has Russia’s third-richest man suddenly developed a death wish?
In fact, Prokhorov has been handpicked by President Dmitry Medvedev as a safe straw man to lead a opposition party that will lightly criticize the Kremlin but avoid any real dissent.
Prokhorov himself doesn’t put it quite that way. The mogul has coyly promised that if he wins the race for Right Cause’s chairmanship, the party will be reformist, pro-industry, and pro-Medvedev. Unsurprising, since the idea of building the formerly independent Right Cause into a loyal opposition is Medvedev’s pet project.
The idea is to create an alternative to United Russia, the giant “party of power” headed by Vladimir Putin that dominates the Duma. But while Right Cause will be an alternative, it will hardly be any real challenge to Putin’s party. Both Medvedev and Prokhorov have predicted that the new party will come in second to United Russia in December’s parliamentary elections. In Russia’s “managed democracy,” electoral predictions made by the Kremlin have a habit of coming true. Meanwhile, genuine opposition parties, like the one headed by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, probably won’t make a dent, thanks to problems with registering candidates, getting access to media, and widespread ballot-fixing.
Prokhorov might not be an obvious choice to head a political party. He’s tall, gangly, and painfully shy; he wears gray suits with gray ties, and at parties (the social kind) he stands in the corner muttering to aides. The 46-year-old bachelor also has a slightly checkered past: in 2007 he was arrested by French police investigating prostitution rings at the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel (he was later released without charge). Still, the oligarch has two things it takes to be successful in Russian politics: the Kremlin’s blessing, and plenty of spare billions to lavish on the project—Forbes lists him as the world’s 39th-richest man, with $18 billion to his name.
For the Kremlin, the idea of a stalking-horse party isn’t new. But Medvedev’s backing makes Right Cause different from earlier pseudo–opposition parties. For one, the new party was cooked up not by Putin’s hacks but by a cabal of top Boris Yeltsin–era liberals, starting with Yeltsin’s former chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin (who groomed Putin for power back in 1998), and Yeltsin’s daughter and son-in-law. The people they summoned to brainstorm Right Cause were also not the usual dim political hacks but some of Russia’s best and brightest: the editor of Forbes Russia, Maxim Kashulinsky, for instance, and Yevgeny Kaspersky, of antivirus fame. Prokhorov, for all his personal nerdiness, is ideally placed to recruit Russia’s liberal intelligentsia to the cause. His Snob magazine and website, made famous in London and New York by its Russian-language campaign, have become the primary discussion forums of Russia’s chattering classes. Prokhorov’s sister also runs the country’s leading avant-garde book publisher and literary journal.
According to a working draft of Right Cause’s concept obtained by NEWSWEEK, the party’s “target audience is, or aspires to be, educated and urban. They respect themselves and demand respect from others.” Self-respecting they may be, but any new party must have the blessing of Putin if it’s to get off the ground. Immediately after an April 28 meeting between Medvedev and Prokhorov where the latter was tapped for his new role, the oligarch headed to Putin for approval and instructions, according to one of Right Cause’s founders. Thanks to Prokhorov, some of Russia’s top minds will be involved in December’s election race, making for some lively debates. But there’s no doubt that Putin owns all the horses.