Moscow Dithers Over New Scandal and Forgets the Old Tragedy

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 171

Former leader of the Pravoe Delo (Right Cause) party, Mikhail Prokhorov

The gathering of the marginal but officially registered Pravoe Delo (Right Cause) political party last week resulted in a massive scandal that has effectively destroyed it and resonated strongly in the liberal and business circles that normally disdain politics. This explosive effect was created not by the fiasco of flamboyant billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who took control over the party last June and now is expelled from its ranks, but by his direct attack on Vladislav Surkov, the deputy head of the presidential administration, who supervises internal politics (RIA Novosti, Vedomosti, September 16). For sure, Prokhorov’s bossy treatment of the party as just another enterprise in his business empire antagonized many activists, and the proposition to rally moderate liberals around an “oligarch” was dubious in the first place, but the fact that a person who made a fortune playing by the rules of Putinism has found resolve to rebel against them has made him a hero for many skeptical observers (Moskovskiy Novosti, September 14,, September 17).

Prokhorov made his surprising move into the political arena with explicit approval and perhaps even under orders from Surkov, and was granted a meeting with Medvedev, who expected this party of entrepreneurs to support vigorously his “modernization” agenda (, June 27). Assuming full control over the party that had public support lower than statistical error, Prokhorov took seriously the challenge of securing its place in the Duma over the 5 percent threshold and saw the need to do more than buying advertising and inviting pop artists to join (Moskovskiy Novosti, July 1). He approached Yevgeny Roizman, a well-known activist leading the NGO campaign against narcotics, and dismissed the “friendly advice” from Surkov’s henchmen to terminate this undesirable association (Moskovskiy Novosti, September 13). It was clear for Prokhorov that only by showing some independence could he convince the hesitant but potentially numerous electorate of the seriousness of his intentions, but such arrogance could not be tolerated by the Kremlin (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 16).

Surkov’s game plan for building a controllable pro-business party has failed but his attempt to cut Prokhorov down to size backfired spectacularly. He excels at spinning a web of complicated intrigues serving tirelessly two masters – President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin – who do not exactly see eye-to-eye on the optimal composition of the parliament and the government. Prokhorov was careful not to step on their differences but tried to expose Surkov as a “puppeteer” with his own agenda and a gang of minions squirreling away funds earmarked for preserving domestic stability (, Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 16). He probably regrets the emotional demand to sack Surkov, echoed by the phenomenally popular singer Alla Pugacheva, because Medvedev cannot afford to be seen as losing control over his own administration. Prokhorov also knows that he and his allies would come under severe and dirty pressure, as he succinctly writes in his blog (, September 16). The worst case scenario for him is a predatory attack on his beguiling business, which might force him into exile in much the same way as Yevgeny Chichvarkin, who was also involved with the Right Cause (Ekho Moskvy, September 16).

Exciting as these political vicissitudes are, it is still remarkable that they have eclipsed completely the twelfth anniversary of the event that shocked the whole country – the explosions in the apartment houses in Moscow on September 9 and 13, 1999 (Ekho Moskvy, September 17). Russian media published and aired plenty of commentaries on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy of 9/11 focusing particularly on the profound decline of US global leadership (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, September 9). The lack of attention to the tragedy on home soil might be caused by the feeling that there are just too many, so that in October it will be nine years since the Nord-Ost hostage drama, in November – two years since the Nevsky Express bombing, and in December – eight years since the suicide explosion near the National Hotel. There is also a feeling that the war with the unidentifiable enemy in the North Caucasus is not going anywhere, so only dry one-liners about suicide bombings and ambushes, in which according to NGO estimates 27 people were killed in the first week of September, appear in some newspapers (Kavkazsky-Uzel, September 10). It is impossible to know when terrorism will return to Moscow, and it is indeed only eight months since the deadly attack in the Domodedovo airport, but there are no illusions that the corrupt police could prevent the next one.

What deters the media and the bloggers from looking into the repercussions of the September 1999 tragedy is the reluctance to touch the dark and dangerous secret at the very start of Putin’s era that defined its oppressive character and determined its indefinite duration. From the day of the second explosion, the Federal Security Service (FSB) and other special services have been granted extraordinary powers that were used for building a “shadow state” that lives its own surreptitious life and extracts the rents from unaccountable sources. In this permanent counter-terrorist operation, the legal system functions as an appendage to the repressive mechanism, pursuing its own agenda of profit-maximization. Putin is both the master and a hostage of this predatory system of power, from which there is no way out into a cozy retirement, and he is painfully aware of its inability to evolve into a normal state based on the rule of law.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky challenged this “shadow state” and refused to accept its punishment, exposing its illegitimacy by every available means from interviews to the European Court of Human Rights. Prokhorov insists that his fight is of an entirely different nature, but by refusing to bend to the petty wishes from the Kremlin he has qualified as an “enemy of the state,” and his fortune, instead of shielding him from persecution, makes it more tempting for the greedy siloviki to go after the loot (Novaya Gazeta, September 15). Prokhorov is guilty of revealing how rotten Putinism has grown; he may yet buy himself out of this predicament, but his moment of defiance added to the implosion of the corrupt super-structure that came into being from the forgotten twin explosions.