Assessing Mikhail Kasianov’s chances of becoming president

On September 14, in a live interview on Echo of Moscow Radio, former prime minister Mikhail Kasianov stated publicly for the first time that he intends to run for president. At present, Kasianov obviously has no chance of winning. By 2008, however, a Kasianov victory could well become a possibility.

On September 14, in a live interview on Echo of Moscow Radio, former prime minister Mikhail Kasianov stated publicly for the first time that he intends to run for president. At present, Kasianov obviously has no chance of winning. By 2008, however, a Kasianov victory could well become a possibility.

“Will you be a presidential candidate?” the interviewer asked.

Kasianov paused for a few seconds before breathing his reply – or rather, forcing it out: “My answer at this point is yes.”

“At this point” – it’s important to note that. As yet, Kasianov’s disadvantages as a presidential candidate far outnumber his advantages, and he cannot fail to be aware of this. Hence his difficulty in replying: time to cross the Rubicon, with an urge to leave the pontoon behind as well. So he did.

What Kasianov lacks

Let’s not discuss his voter support rating. As Russia’s political experience shows, voter support can be built up – or created, if necessary.

Still, building up a rating without access to state administration resources would be difficult, if not impossible. Even the Communist Party (CPRF) in the mid-1990s, for all its moaning about “opposition being completely suppressed,” had some Communist regional leaders, city mayors, and Duma members capable of offering some assistance to the CPRF presidential candidate. These days, however, if you were to describe any regional leader as pro-Kasianov, he’d probably take offense and sue you for defamation.

Neither does Kasianov have any support from a major political party or even a few prominent second-rank organizations. Then again, Kasianov himself has stated that he’s already holding talks with “all democratic forces”; but everyone involved is still keeping silent about the results of these consultations. For example, when we approached Yabloko party deputy leader Sergei Ivanenko, his reply was brief: yes, Yabloko has discussed “various aspects of politics, party-building, and elections” with Kasianov, but he would not go into detail: “Because while consultations are still under way, they are not discussed publicly.” Union of Right Forces (URF) deputy leader Leonid Gozman had a similar reply: “Complete confidentiality is an essential precondition for making such contacts effective. If anything is leaked to the media, everything starts collapsing.”

Meanwhile, leaders of the CPRF – the only party mentioned by Kasianov as a likely ally (in its “social-democratic part”) – are resolutely denying the possibility of contacts with Kasianov. “He is our ideological opponent, in principle,” said CPRF Central Committee deputy chairman Ivan Melnikov. And Oleg Kulikov, Central Committee media secretary, told us: “It was during Kasianov’s time as prime minister that corruption bloomed in Russia.”

Kasianov’s funding situation also remains uncertain. He certainly does have some money of his own – enough to buy dacha properties after his dismissal – but it’s unlikely to be enough to fund an independent campaign. So he’ll need funding; but big business probably won’t want to repeat the “Khodorkovsky error.”

Finally, another important disadvantage is Kasianov’s lack of access to national media outlets. Unlike CPRF leader Gennadi Zyuganov, for example, who already had a substantial voter support rating by 1996, Kasianov will have to build up his image practically from scratch – and that requires frequent television appearances. In this respect, his situation is even worse than Zyuganov’s in 1996: the CPRF leader was at least assured of regular coverage on NTV back then, but nowadays Kasianov might only be seen on the far less popular Ren-TV channe.

What Kasianov might have

Naturally, Vladimir Putin has done a great deal over the past five years to get rid of Yeltsin’s Family proteges at various levels of government; but this period has been insufficient to clean out all Family appointees and their sympathizers who have held key posts for almost a decade. And the Family survivors may decide to back Kasianov, as “one of their own” – as many regional leaders in 1999 risked supporting the anti-Kremlin Fatherland (Otechestvo) movement rather than the pro-Kremlin Unity (Edinstvo) movement. But in order for that to happen, the Old Guard needs to be convinced that it’s reached the final boundary, and that inaction would lead to the permanent loss of all its gains.

This could happen if the New Guard, intoxicated by its victory over YUKOS, presses on with the attack across all fronts – the bureaucracy and the oligarchy. If the Old Guard in the bureaucracy sees any attempts to “redistribute Russia” in a way that cuts it out of government, it might start reconsidering its priorities. If the St. Petersburg people continue redistributing property, the Yeltsin-era oligarchs who still make up the majority in big business might overcome their fear of persecution (accepting it as inevitable in any case) and resolve to fund an opposition candidate. At present, rumor has it that only Alexander Mamut is supporting Kasianov; the other oligarchs are taking a wait-and-see approach. All the same, despite the former prime minister’s sudden move into overt opposition, they are not breaking off old friendships with him. It’s worth noting that Kasianov was a guest on Roman Abramovich’s yacht in August; Abramovich used to be considered a key financial figure in Yeltsin’s Family.

This isn’t surprising: after all, Kasianov may not be an oligarch, but he is “one of them.” Not some upstart from a tame party, not some ex-KGB outsider, but one of their own – a comprehensible, predictable person. They might well consider him a guarantor of “continuity in government” – a matter of such concern to both Vladislav Surkov and Anatoly Chubais.

And if part of the elite does back Kasianov, even half-way, the democratic parties will start supporting him as well. After all, they will also need to raise campaign funds somehow. The personal ambitions of their leaders are preventing the democratic parties from reaching agreement amongst themselves, but if faced with a real threat of vanishing from the political stage, democratic leaders might swallow their pride and endorse Kasianov as their sole presidential candidate – after all, successful participation in a presidential campaign would substantially boost the approval ratings of their parties.

Finally, the media situation might also change by 2008. A sense of complete victory in television broadcasting seems to have led the authorities to relax their vigilance already. Evidence of this can be seen in Leonid Parfenov’s recent Crimean War documentary on Channel One (ORT); it was crammed full of transparent hints about the situation in Russia today. And here’s something else that might be considered a minor victory for Kasianov: Channel One also reported the statement he made on Echo of Moscow Radio, although until now this channel had only shown interest in compromising information about Kasianov.

Even mud-slinging could work to Kasianov’s advantage if it is intensified. If the state-controlled television channels really start attacking Kasianov, this would win him bonus points in the West – since the West finds Kasianov far more comprehensible than any potential Putin-backed candidate. So far, however, it seems that the attack on Kasianov over his dacha property purchase has been halted. There could be various reasons for this: the Kremlin might be reluctant to turn Kasianov into “another Khodorkovsky,” or afraid that Kasianov might retaliate – after all, he also accumulated a lot of information about his colleagues during his years in the Finance Ministry and as prime minister.

In any event, it is significant that Kasianov, who doesn’t seem at all inclined to commit political suicide, has decided to state his presidential ambitions openly. Kasianov would not take this risk without at least a minimal prospect of success. And if his attempts to expand that prospect should fail, he has left himself a loophole: after all, he only said yes “at this point.” By 2008, if Kasianov realizes that he’s failed to attract support from any substantial forces or do a deal with the “democratic” part of the Kremlin, he’ll simply change his answer to no.