Mikhail Kasyanov: the "other face" of Russian democracy?


Could Mikhail Kasyanov become another Viktor Yushchenko? That question was taken up by the Gazeta newspaper on the third day after the Moscow city legislature election, in which an alliance of pro-democracy forces got 11% of the vote.

“It’s not a triumph, of course, and not even a victory,” said Ilya Yashin, leader of the Yabloko party’s youth branch, in Novaya Gazeta. “But neither is it a fiasco like our performance in 2003.”

Right-wing party leaders are hoping that the Moscow city election results will “stimulate the process of establishing a major democratic party capable of not losing in 2007.” As Yashin emphasized, “the most important thing now is not to let this opportunity slip.”

Yegor Timurovich Gaidar, “father of Russian demcracy and Union of Right Forces party founder,” agrees in an interview with Gazeta that it’s important to build on this success. Gaidar stresses once again that in his opinion, there are no insurmountable disagreements on matters of principle between the two leading pro-democracy parties.

Moreover, Gaidar maintains that “the two parties have never differed on the key problems confronting Russia today – functioning democratic institutions, civil rights and liberties. We have always taken a common stance on those questions.” And everything else can be set aside, if only temporarily: “Debates over who did something wrong in economic policy, and when, or whether the 500 Days program was feasible, or whether we did the right thing with price deregulation in the early 1990s – this is interesting, of course. These are topics for seminars, conferences, and lectures. But their relevance to the present situation is rather limited.”

What’s more, Gaidar shares what is a fairly widespread opinion among political analysts: that the democratic forces require “a change of faces and names,” since “the people who set democratic and economic changes in motion in the late 1980s and early 1990s have had their turn, for better or worse, and should step aside now.” Some “different faces” are needed now.

It’s hard to say whether this vague definition fits former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov – but he’s the one who has increased his political activities in the wake of the Moscow election.

Calling an improvised press conference in his office, Kasyanov said: “The results of the Moscow city legislature election have demonstrated that in their present form, the democratic forces can only remind people of their existence; unfortunately, they cannot win elections.” (Quoted in Nezavisimaya Gazeta.)

In Kasyanov’s view, this is a serious problem for Russia, since “the democratic forces are unable to resist the policy course pursued by the authorities over the past two years: a policy of curtailing democratic liberties.” And therefore, as Kasyanov emphasized, “it’s necessary to go back to the beginning and start building a new Russia in a clear field.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta explains that Kasyanov considers the Democratic Party of Russia (DPR) to represent the beginning and the clear field, since “Russia’s new statehood and multi-party system began” with this party 15 years ago.

The Vedomosti newspaper sets out the party’s history: “The DPR is a holy relic for the democrats. It was established in May 1990 as the first alternative party to the CPSU, with its first leader being Nikolai Travkin, people’s deputy of the USSR and Russia. The DPR was the party that nominated Yeltsin for president.”

Essentially, this meaningful reminder (without any references to the DPR’s inglorious present, since it got less than 2% of the vote at the last Duma elections) is quite sufficient to understand why the Russian press is so ready to draw parallels between the political biographies of Viktor Yushchenko, former prime minister of Ukraine, and Mikhail Kasyanov, former prime minister of Russia. Yushchenko has already become president; Kasyanov is only seeking opportunities and methods of doing so.

It should be noted that most politicians and analysts are skeptical about the idea of Kasyanov becoming Russia’s Yushchenko. Their arguments concern not only the electoral prospects of Kasyanov himself, but also the chances of a Ukrainian-style Orange Revolution being repeated in Russia.

Duma member Oleg Kovalev (United Russia faction) told Gazeta authoritatively that “Russia is not Ukraine” – in the sense that unlike Ukraine, with its clear division into West and East, Russia is a homogeneous state.

Alexei Mitrofanov, deputy leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said that while Ukraine (Western Ukraine) has “a passionate, ideologically-driven segment of voters,” Russia does not. Or, to be more precise, such people are few in Russia – “fortunately,” said Mitrofanov – and “scattered across different cities.”

Our people have different interests, as Novaya Gazeta noted in the wake of the Moscow election; “Russia is suffering from indifference to politics, and its politicians are suffering from indifference to Russia.”

Mitrofanov said: “People in Russia are mostly concerned about issues with a direct impact on their lives – pension increases, for example. Who would go out on the streets in support of Kasyanov?”

The right-wing parties take essentially the same view. Union of Right Forces (URF) deputy leader Leonid Gozman also maintains that “the situation in Russia is very different from the situation in Ukraine. In my view, therefore, expecting the Ukraine scenario to be repeated here, regardless of your attitude to it, is just like preparing to fight the previous war.”

Yabloko deputy leader Sergei Mitrokhin told Vremya Novostei firmly that as yet he can’t see “a single reason why Kasyanov should become the leader of a democratic coalition. If he does anything to earn the right to that title, then we’ll see.”

Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Political Techniques Center, notes that Kasyanov, unlike Yushchenko, has an extremely low support rating: “I doubt that the democratic forces would agree to subordinate themselves to him, and risk being placed on the Kremlin’s list of enemies.”

Lilya Shevtsova, senior analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, expresses an even more definite opinion in a interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta: “This is not a Kremlin project, so it will be destroyed down to the root. Everyone connected with it will be purged, just in case.”

But the Kommersant newspaper quotes sources from Kasyanov’s team as saying that he is “fully prepared to face attempts to bring him down.” At present, Kasyanov is working on a curious move: he plans to become the leader of the DPR at its party congress on December 17, although he doesn’t intend to join the party. Then again, by becoming its leader, Kasyanov could cause problems for the DPR in the process of its re-registration with the Justice Ministry. And Kommersant doesn’t rule out the possibility that Kasyanov’s team may be counting on that development.

The idea is that if the authorities take repressive measures against “Kasyanov’s party,” this might boost the support rating of Kasyanov himself (1.5% at present, according to Levada Center polling agency data reported by Vedomosti) and his “political weight” as a potential presidential candidate endorsed by a democratic coalition in 2008.

One of Kasyanov’s likely allies – or rivals, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out – is Garry Kasparov, leader of the United Civic Front. Kasparov maintains that Kasyanov is capable of posing a threat to the authorities in future.

“Support for Kasyanov is much higher within the bureaucracy than among the general public,” says Kasparov. And all Kasyanov’s statements about an impending crisis in Russia, according to Kasparov, “are aimed at that audience, which is likewise aware that the system isn’t really working, despite an outward illusion of prosperity.” Therefore, support for Kasyanov in those circles is “high, although silent.”

Meanwhile, Our Choice party leader Irina Khakamada has said she is prepared to join the DPR. Khakamada told the Novye Izvestia newspaper that she is attracted by Kasyanov’s overt stance of opposition to the authorities, his democratic development program for Russia, and his readiness to run for president.

Khakamada disregards what some politicians and analysts are saying about Kasyanov having no chance of success. She maintains that in Russia’s present circumstances, “politics has been killed, and therefore political analysis is also dead.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta ventures the cautious opinion that comparisons between Kasyanov and Yushchenko, already drawn often enough to become boring, are viewed by many as not entirely unfounded.

“No one could imagine Yushchenko becoming president either, for quite a long time.” Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out that Yushchenko’s intensive political activities only began after the leaders of Ukraine’s right-wing liberals, finding that their services weren’t wanted by the authorities, started “moving from senior offices to television screens, where they are still appearing on all kinds of talk shows.” The similarity to Kasyanov’s political career is undeniable.

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, there are other similarities: “Yushchenko was the one who prevented a default in Ukraine, and it was under his leadership that Ukraine’s reforms were recognized by the West in 2001.” Meanwhile, the task of cleaning up the consequences of Russia’s default fell to Kasyanov: “And note that when he left his office in 2004, it was very different from what it had been in August 1998.”

Moreover, as Nezavisimaya Gazeta points out sympathetically, “Kasyanov’s current activities don’t promise to bring him either glory or money.” And the office he seeks “isn’t likely to enrich him either, even assuming that he secures it.” Besides, “Kasyanov is already rich.” So, according to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “we can only assume that his intentions are sincere.” And “the more far-sighted politicians on the right” may well believe this, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta. Khakamada, for one, “clearly understands that none of the old guard would be capable of becoming the head of state, even if they were suddenly given the opportunity.” None of the liberals, “who have spent many years focused on squabbling with each other,” would want to run the country – except for Kasyanov, the “political amateur.” This rather touching article in Nezavisimaya Gazeta bears an appropriate headline: “Mikhail the Unifier.”

All the same, Carnegie Moscow Center analyst Andrei Ryabov told Kommersant that Kasyanov has made a mistake in linking his plans to the DPR. In order to really challenge United Russia in the presidential election, Kasyanov “must not confine himself within the framework of the pro-democracy electorate.”

In Ryabov’s opinion, Kasyanov is repeating the mistake made by Yevgeny Primakov in 1999. At the time, Primakov was considered a realistic contender for the presidency – until he agreed to head the Fatherland-All Russia bloc.

And for this very reason, says Ryabov, the Kremlin might not take Kasyanov’s intentions seriously or use any repressive measures against the DPR.

“But that would seem to be the least preferable option for Kasyanov,” says Kommersant. “It would mean the DPR remaining a little-known party, and Kasyanov himself remaining a politician with no real party support and virtually no chance of significant success in 2008.”

Mark Urnov, head of the Expertise Foundation, points out in Novye Izvestia that even if Kasyanov and Khakamada merge their parties, their combined voter support would clearly be insufficient for participation in the presidential election. Given that the URF and Yabloko are taking a skeptical view of Kasyanov’s initiative, and Russia lacks any substantial center-right parties, Kasyanov clearly has no chance of succeeding.

Then again, says Urnov, Kasyanov himself might well generate a center-right structure. It should be noted that Kasyanov is “a prominent political figure who identifies as right-wing, so if he doesn’t manage to establish a substantial coalition, he could always join the right wing of United Russia – they’re unlikely to reject him.”

Indeed, it would be irresponsible to write off a political heavyweight like Kasyanov, regardless of his political orientation – especially since the moods of Russia’s voters are fairly contradictory: Gazeta reports opinion polls showing that two-thirds of respondents support right-wing ideas, 61% support left-wing ideas, and 60% support nationalist-patriotic ideas.

According to the experts approached by Gazeta, this astonishing mixture of contradictory ideas in the collective consciousness is a sure sign that people aren’t yet ready to vote for specific parties with strictly-defined ideologies. In that sense, United Russia is practically the perfect party for current conditions in Russia: “Neither fish nor fowl, neither right nor left.”

Russia’s loyalist press has found a slick definition for United Russia: “social conservatives.” This formula can be made to fit virtually anyone, including Kasyanov. Citing Levada Center poll results, the Vedomosti newspaper says that Kasyanov has “dropped out of the public’s field of attention.”

Indeed, it would probably be hard to find a better way to make a political comeback than by joining the party described by Alexander Privalov in Ekspert magazine as relying on the Kremlin for 90% of its support, with the Kremlin relying on the party in turn.

That is far more than “an alliance of two zeroes” – the description applied to the Kasyanov-Khakamada alliance by All-Russia Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) director Valery Fedorov, according to Vedomosti.

On the other hand, observers have no doubt that a politician with as much experience in state administration as Kasyanov will be able to make full use of any opportunities available to him. As the press loves to point out, there is a certain person in Russia who began his rise to the top as a complete unknown, with no public support at all: “And you know who that person is.”

Therefore, says Mercator Group director Dmitri Oreshkin, Kasyanov has every chance of becoming the leader of a consolidated democratic opposition: “If only because he represents a realistic alternative to Putin or Putin’s designated successor.”

Of course, Kasyanov’s support rating is only just over 1% at present. “But the designated successor has no support rating at all as yet, because we don’t know who he is,” says Oreshkin in an interview with Novye Izvestia. “And as for President Putin’s popularity – well, anything can happen over two years.”

And that seems to be the least disputable statement in the whole stormy debate that’s unfolded in the wake of the Moscow election, alreadydescribed by the press as a “success test” for political parties ahead of the next electoral cycle.