“Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends; we’re so glad you could attend – come inside, come inside“. Sticking with the recent musical theme for the moment, let’s kick things off with the intro to British progressive rockers Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s, “Karn Evil 9“. And indeed, the show never ends; not really – when you live in the Fun House, the laughs just never stop, you might say. So I was moved to comment, upon reading Mikhail Loginov’s highly entertaining, “Mikhail Prokhorov: Gilt-Edged Whipping Boy for the Russian Elections?”, for the stubbornly partisan revolutionaries at Open Democracy Russia.
I must say, Open Democracy Russia has a fascination with poets and novelists, and insists on portraying them as political adepts. From Elena Fanailova to Yulia Latynina to, now, Mikhail Loginov. A sometime novelist like Latynina, Loginov penned the doubtless thrilling “Battle for the Kremlin”. I don’t want to spoil it for you, because you were probably just on your way out the door to buy a copy; so we’ll be content with the teaser that was featured alongside another Loginov classic, “The Navalny Effect“. The part that interested me, though, was Open Democracy Russia’s account of what makes a great political analyst.
Mr. Loginov, they tell us, was “a skilled crafter of political brochures, campaign leaflets and election manifestos”. Although Mr. Loginov is from St. Petersburg and what Open Democracy Russia describes as a “metropolitan Russian”, crafting political brochures and campaign leaflets seems to have provided “rich experience” which transformed Mr. Loginov into a “real expert in Russian regional affairs”.
Do tell. I daresay I could write a killer political brochure on somebody I’ve never met. Try me; make up a politician, tell me where he’s from, where he grew up and the name of the region where he’s running. Give me a snapshot bio of his background, especially past military or public service, and a few folksy anecdotes that will lend heartwarming human interest. Just brief bullet points will be fine. Tell me who his opponent is, and what that opponent’s political philosophy appears to be, judging by his performance. You don’t have to go into eye-glazing detail – just enough so I can craft an opposite position for my mythical Renaissance Man. I promise you I can make you wonder why you never noticed how great this guy is, and I’ll never have to leave this chair. Because it will be one hundred percent bullshit. In fact, if you took all the bullshit out of politics, there’d be so little of whatever it was left that they’d have to call it something else.
Needless to say, writing inspirational political brochures wouldn’t make me an expert in regional affairs in the country it describes, although I don’t doubt Mr. Loginov traveled a good deal. But it apparently provided him with the “campaign experience” he needs to write political thrillers (featuring heroes who, presumably, have only modest incomes). Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I get tired of mocking people who talk like they’re crazy, or like they think you are.
But wait, wait!! You haven’t heard the best part. The editors of Open Democracy Russia assess that, based upon his rich campaign experience, the brochure-writing manifesto-slinging Mikhail Loginov is “uniquely placed to explain the phenomenon and enormous popularity of Alexei Navalny.”
I don’t want to make this about Alexei Navalny, because we were going to talk about Mikhail Prokhorov. But I think we can agree the “Navalny Effect” as described by Mikhail Loginov was a big fat zero. Just three months before Mr. Loginov swooned dreamily that Navalny – with his “imaginative campaigning” and “Obama-style presentation” – (you can so visualize this guy writing campaign leaflets, can’t you?) had “emerged as the unifying figure for anti-government sentiment [and]…transformed the country’s political landscape forever”…a Levada poll of self-identified Internet users (Navalny’s biggest audience) found that both Medvdev and Putin (who more or less ignores the internet) pulled in better than double the votes Navalny did, which is still pitiful considering a staggering 95% did not pay attention to any political figure on the Internet. Pardon me if I’m unable to reconcile that with transforming the political landscape forever. Although if his objective really is “…for the oil export market to belong to our Russian companies, and not to a Swiss offshore company”, it’s hard to disagree.
Anyway, enough about Navalny. Mr. Loginov wants to talk about Prokhorov. According to Mr. Loginov, the fact that Mr. Prokhorov is Russia’s third-richest man makes his sudden interest in politics “puzzling”. He’s got a point, hasn’t he – after all, wealthy people almost never go into politics. Oh…wait. Yes, they do. According to none other than Open Democracy, there was nothing at all puzzling about Russia’s richest man pondering political ambitions. Nope – sorry, Mikhail; politics is lousy with rich folks. The leaders of Italy, France, the United Kingdom, the United States…..all very, very wealthy. Not to put too fine a point on it, but politics and personal fortunes are far from mutually exclusive. You’d think a crafty old political campaigner with rich experience would know that.
For the record, I agree that Prokhorov’s precipitate entry into politics is curious, but not because he’s rich. He strikes me as a dabbler in politics, who is trying it on because being ridiculously rich means you have a lot of spare time; kind of boring, really. I don’t think he aims ever to lead the nation, and nobody should really enter politics at the party leader level with a lesser aim than that. But the notion that Putin personally dragged him into the political arena as a foil, a hate-magnet who would make United Russia look good, is about as farfetched a proposal as suggesting Putin paid Saakashvili to attack Russia just so Russia could smash him and get the people swept up in a fever of national pride. After a while, you get so you see conspiracy under every rock. Seriously, I’m sure there are figures Russians love to hate more than Prokhorov, who appears to be at heart a fairly nice guy. How about Anatoly Chubais? Ramzan Kadyrov? What about Sergei Mavrodi, who hoodwinked thousands out of their money? Yury Luzhkov, who rushed to look after his bees while Moscow was virtually uninhabitable because of choking smoke, and demanded the right to vacation time when people asked why, you know, the mayor wasn’t around when there was a crisis? Come on, you can’t tell me if you seeded a startup opposition party with one of those individuals, it wouldn’t generate more hate votes than Prokhorov.
Besides, Prokhorov is more or less in agreement with Putin’s policies, and simply recommends a little liberal tinkering that is more window-dressing than high political drama. If anything, he might attract votes that would otherwise go to United Russia, splitting the vote and putting the Communists in striking distance. But the instinct to say, “something wicked this way comes with Vladimir Putin written all over it” at every surprise seems to run deep indeed in certain quarters. We don’t understand it, so Putin must be doing it to somehow simultaneously screw us and benefit himself. Vladimir Putin is a clever manipulator, but even he must shake his head sometimes, and marvel at the Machiavellian plots for which he receives attribution.
Well, let’s see what other conspiracy comestibles Mr. Loginov has to tempt us with, shall we? Oh, here’s a good one – Vladimir “the Dragon” Zhirinovsky pounces on a governor’s race in a “certain southern region”, and by dint of running a complete arsehole campaign, causes the incumbent governor (who was about to lose to the Communists) to look good by comparison, and he won, presumably because of Zhirinovsky the ridicule-magnet’s intervention. This is offered for context, to show how clever strategic interjection of a dumbass can make the most unsavory politician look like a saviour.
There are a couple of things wrong with this. One, Zhirinovsky has been in politics for 21 years, all of it with the same party. The governor’s election described took place in 2001 – eleven years is a long time to hold a sleeper agent in reserve to wreck a single governor’s race. His purpose accomplished and the rotten incumbent governor reelected, why did he hang around for another ten years? Why didn’t he get out of politics, once he had discharged his presumably Kremlin-managed mission? For another, the governor in question was involved in a tight race. Putin (or Medvedev) could start appearing in public in a dress, or pretend to be possessed by the ghost of Keith Richards (I know, I know, he’s not dead yet, but he looks like he is), and still win. United Russia’s popularity may have slipped – and who cares, the election’s still a year away and a lot can happen in a year – but it hasn’t slipped to the point that any liberal opposition has a serious chance. That’s not because the election is rigged; it’s because not anything like enough voters are interested in seeing a liberal opposition run the country, which is pretty much the essence of democracy. What does United Russia need with a spoiler party, led by a non-controversial rich guy, which basically agrees with the way United Russia runs the country and proposes only minor adjustments?
Sliding smoothly from proposing nutty theories that have no basis in reality to simply making things up altogether, the experienced writer of political thrillers tells us that United Russia won’t be content with just winning – it needs a Saddam Hussein-style landslide if it is to hold up its head around other dictators. And that won’t happen, because the majority of the population gets its news from the internet, and sees United Russia as “the party of thieves and swindlers”.
Quite apart from being a transparent effort to set the bar high enough that a not-so-dramatic win by United Russia will look like a loss, that’s not even in the same room as true. A muscular majority of about 8 in 10 people gets its news from television and, as established in the Levada poll cited earlier (which came from this website), an overwhelming majority of internet users do not find the message of any politician or blogger particularly compelling. Despite the gritty and determined efforts of democracy-activist button-men like Loginov to help “the party of thieves and swindlers” gain traction as a catchphrase, it is not anything like as popular as he describes – outside the western press, which loves it.
At the point where Loginov says, “Throughout human history very rich people have never been universally loved or admired. In Russia, thanks to its Communist past, this dislike has turned into uncontrollable hatred”, I stopped reading; it was just getting too silly. If Russians truly are driven into transports of uncontrollable hatred at the sight of rich people, why would Open Democracy advocate a pardon by Russia’s president of Russia’s richest man? Under what turquoise sun does that make sense? We’re supposed to believe Russians who drool foam and stagger at the sight of rich Prokhorov would just shrug and say, “Hey – that was pretty fair” on receiving the news that Medvedev had pardoned rich Khodorkovsky?
Is a little consistency in the asylum too much to ask?