Ottawa Citizen

Opponents offer glimpse of post-putin Russia

- MATTHEW FISHER MOSCOW

Vladimir Putin will either win today’s presidenti­al election with more than half of all the votes or will fall just short and score an even bigger second-round triumph against today’s runner-up in three weeks’ time.

Either way, Putin is about to add another six years to the 12 years he already has spent in the Kremlin. But there is a but.

In an election where Putin’s circle has tried not to leave anything to chance because it badly wants another crushing victory, only to have a protest movement against his authoritar­ian rule suddenly explode out of nothing in Moscow, one of the few imponderab­les is how billionair­e Mikhail Prokhorov will fare.

Prokhorov’s unexpected candidacy as a self-described independen­t is thought to have arisen from Putin’s need for the elections to appear legitimate, rather than a coronation, by having someone relatively well-known but not too politicall­y dangerous to run against. At the same time, Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets of the NBA, might rob the opposition of a few votes, making Putin’s margin of victory look a bit better.

However, it may not play out exactly the way the former president, current prime minister and future president or his cronies want. Anecdotal evidence over the past few days suggests that despite the murky provenance of Prokhorov’s Siberian nickel-palladium fortune and his ties to Boris Yeltsin and now to Putin, the 46-year-old economist described as Russia’s most eligible bachelor could receive as many or more votes in Moscow than Communist Gennady Zyuganov, the predictabl­y dour communist leader, whose political strength, such as it is, lies out in the industrial­ized boondocks.

There are many reasons why Prokhorov has caught the fancy of some voters. They start with the fact the tycoon is not Putin, that at 6-8 he is far more physically imposing than his patron in a country where size sometimes does matter, that he has matinee-idol looks and that he is 13 years younger.

Prokhorov’s main political message, which is that Putin has had enough time in power, certainly resonates with some voters. But his demand for more competitio­n in business in Russia rings hollow as he gained his fortune through dubious schemes in which he was able to use cheap loans to buy grossly undervalue­d shares.

Could a stronger-than-expected showing today give Russia’s third-wealthiest man a political base that he could build on if Putin falters and the oligarchs try to move against him to protect their gargantuan fortunes? Could Prokhorov use his supporters as a springboar­d if Putin finally says enough is enough and chooses to retire in 2018, when he will be 65 years old?

Even thinking about Russia after Putin is revolution­ary and has broken some kind of unspoken taboo. That, by itself, has weakened Putin’s leadership although by how much and whether for very long is impossible to gauge at this point.

It is not only whether or how Prokhorov positions himself after the election, but what Putin, with the massive powers that still accrue to the strongman in the Kremlin, might do to check Prokhorov if Prokhorov says, as he does today, that he is playing a long game, is establishi­ng his own political party, is seriously interested in the top job and would forsake his billions of dollars if he got it.

A complicati­on for Prokhorov is that while some Muscovites may have forgiven him for acquiring assets worth billions of dollars for a tiny fraction of that, Russians outside the capital are not likely to be so forgiving.

Nor has anyone forgotten what happened to Mikhail Khodorkovs­ky, who was the last oligarch to challenge Putin. Khodorkovs­ky has been in prison for nine years and has five more years to serve if more charges are not brought before then.

Another imponderab­le on the eve of the presidenti­al election is whether the hero of Moscow’s protest movement, the anti-corruption blogger, Alexei Navalny, can turn his current celebrity into anything more than “street cred.” Until now, there is little sign that this is happening, but he is well-regarded by most of those who have demonstrat­ed against Putin.

Still, maintainin­g any kind of momentum or public enthusiasm for protest beyond a few weeks after Sunday’s ballot will be difficult because Putin will get a healthy majority of the votes and because the next parliament­ary elections, which helped spark December’s modest revolt, are still years away.

Putin has lots in his favour aside from the fact that many Russians still admire his swagger and approve of how he has handled Russia’s oil- and gas-soaked economy. As a slew of expensive election promises recently demonstrat­ed, Putin also maintains firm control of the financial spigot.

Moreover, the infrequent rallies may have received more attention than they deserved from the mostly fawning Western media because the largely middle-class folks who have shown up do not remotely represent a pan-moscow protest movement, let alone a national cause.

Finally, Prokhorov, Zyuganov, Navalny and half a dozen other would-be leaders hold views that are as irreconcil­able as those held by Stephen Harper’s Tories and Elizabeth May’s Green Party. On the other hand, Moscow is awash with rumours that members of Putin’s inner circle are at war with each other.

Dividing and conquering such an unco-ordinated opposition should, in theory, at least, be easy for someone of Putin’s legendary shrewdness and charisma. Neverthele­ss, for the first time in more than a decade, some Russians are clearly having doubts about who should preside over the Kremlin.

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