How the Kremlin engineered Kasyanov’s split from the Other Russia

Mikhail Kasyanov and the Other Russia coalition seem to have parted company, finally and irreversibly. Kasyanov will run for president on his own. The Kremlin has ensured that there won’t be any common candidate representing all opposition forces in the presidential election of 2008.

Mikhail Kasyanov and the Other Russia coalition seem to have parted company, finally and irreversibly. The former prime minister will now be working on a new political party, known as The People for Democracy and Justice, while the remnants of the Other Russia make preparations for more Dissenter March protests. But most people have lost interest: separately, neither the coalition nor Kasyanov will be a significant political force.

For a couple of years now, Kasyanov has openly acknowledged his intention to run for president in 2008, challenging the Putin team. But wanting to start a political campaign isn’t enough; a candidate also needs money and media coverage. More importantly, a candidate needs a certain status.

At the start of his political career, Kasyanov counted on the support of part of the nomenklatura – those who had been friendly toward him since Putin’s first term. For instance, Kasyanov held some low-profile talks with Alexander Voloshin (former head of the presidential administration), Anatoly Chubais (head of RAO Unified Energy Systems and unofficial leader of the Union of Right Forces), and other influential political figures. But these contacts led nowhere; the people who had been talking with Kasyanov switched to supporting Dmitri Medvedev when he was promoted to senior deputy prime minister and became known as a potential successor to Putin. Kasyanov then decided to go it alone, at his own risk.

His first experiment was an attempt to become the leader of the Democratic Party of Russia (DPR). Rumor has it that some influential people from the presidential administration advised the DPR leadership not to get involved with Kasyanov. The Kremlin’s arguments were so persuasive that the would-be leader and his team weren’t even allowed to attend the DPR congress.

So Kasyanov swore off existing political organizations and decided to start his own movement – the People’s Democratic Union (NDS) – recruiting a number of yesterday’s heroes like Ivan Starikov, Irina Khakamada, and Nikolai Travkin.

But being the leader of a newly-formed political organization clearly wasn’t enough for Kasyanov. He sought the title of anti-Putin coalition leader. This made it necessary to establish such a coalition and make it as representative as possible.

Some say there is no opposition in Russia, but that isn’t true. There are plenty of opposition forces. But uniting all the anti-Putin forces is no easy task: the smaller the organization, the greater the ambitions of its leader. The project also faced the problem of ideological differences: some of the Kremlin’s present-day opponents prospered in the Yeltsin era, while others have been fighting the “anti-people regime” ever since the early 1990s, not seeing much difference between the first and second presidents or their policies.

No existing organization could be used as a foundation for this alliance. The alliance couldn’t have only one leader, or even a handful of co-leaders. It required a format that would be acceptable to all coalition participants, but would also make it possible to move from discussion to action.

The Other Russia appeared to succeed in uniting the incompatible: street brawlers from Eduard Limonov’s banned party, professional liberals from the late Free Choice 2008 Committee, former Yeltsin advisors, and former oligarch-fighters. Even five years ago, many of these people wouldn’t have been on speaking terms. However, what really gave weight to the Other Russia project was the presence of Kasyanov. Despite his failures in public politics, he was still a political heavyweight and the most promising politician among the Other Russia’s leaders.

In effect, the Other Russia couldn’t possibly endorse anyone other than Kasyanov as its presidential candidate. Garry Kasparov and Eduard Limonov are unelectable, a priori; besides, the former chess champion and the writer are more interested in political battles as such. Viktor Gerashchenko is too old. Vladimir Ryzhkov lacks charisma. The rest of the Other Russia’s leaders and activists are generally unknown beyond the political in-crowd. There wasn’t enough time for a publicity campaign to promote someone entirely new. Kasyanov also had an advantage in that his career resembled that of Boris Yeltsin; even his build is similar to Yeltsin’s.

Yabloko, the Union of Right Forces (SPS), and the Communist Party (CPRF) did not join the Other Russia coalition. Their absence was a disadvantage, to some extent; although they are fading parties, they can still influence opposition voters. But the Other Russia was hoping that activists and lower-level leaders from these parties would join the coalition anyway, once they saw how promising it could be, leaving the party leaders as “generals without armies.” In some cases, this actually happened: entire regional branches of Yabloko and the SPS, as well as individual activists, started cooperating with the Other Russia.

One reason for this was that the Other Russia offered political prospects. It was really fighting for power, strongly in opposition to the Kremlin – while the established opposition parties couldn’t manage to determine their political position. Their leaders engaged in endless bargaining with the presidential administration, while ordinary members couldn’t really understand those games; and there was the persistent sense that any compromises would be made at the expense of the rank-and-file.

The greatest moment in the Other Russia’s history was the Dissenter March in Moscow on April 14; the symbol of its success was a photograph of Kasyanov fighting off the riot police. This wasn’t just a lucky shot – it was a symbol of how a nomenklatura politician could stand with the people, bravely and resolutely resisting the arbitrary abuses of the authorities.

The Other Russia started moving into the election cycle. It wasn’t really interested in the Duma election, since it had neither a suitable party nor any particular wish to participate. Instead, the coalition started making preparations for the presidential election, since the outcome of this election would make it possible to sort out the Duma somehow. The coalition would gain an advantage in terms of time and resources by launching its presidential campaign while its political opponents were still focused on the Duma campaign. Kasyanov was already preparing himself for autumn.

But then, over the past few weeks, other presidential contenders emerged from the Other Russia: Viktor Gerashchenko, followed by Sergei Gulyaev, leader of a newly-formed “national-democratic” organization called Narod (The People). There were rumors that Vladimir Ryzhkov might be nominated as well. Moreover, the leaders of the established opposition parties – Gennadi Zyuganov, Grigori Yavlinsky, Vladimir Zhirinovsky – also announced their intentions to run for president.

Kasyanov was faced with the need to win a form of “primaries” in order to be chosen as the presidential candidate representing all opposition forces. Success could not be guaranteed. This state of affairs certainly didn’t suit Kasyanov: being fired by Putin is one thing, but losing the primaries to Sergei Gulyaev or Grigori Yavlinsky is quite another. And that’s why Kasyanov decided to make a break with the Other Russia: in his view, the emergence of other potential candidates invalidated all previous agreements. The behavior of political party leaders also came as a blow.

According to our sources, the Kremlin had a hand in the emergence of so many presidential hopefuls among the opposition. The calculation behind this maneuver was simple: Kasyanov, an inexperienced politician, wouldn’t want to participate in primaries, since he might lose – and his refusal would be expressed in the strongest possible form. The bargaining was equally simple: the established opposition party leaders were offered the Kremlin’s support in the parliamentary election, in exchange for announcing their intentions to run for president; but if they refused, their parties would be penalized in December – or even sooner. The SPS and Yabloko failed to make it into the Duma in 2003, and have no chance of making a comeback to the parliament this year. The CPRF is rapidly losing its influence. Nevertheless, the leaders of these parties (and their close associates) are doing well. Yabloko occupies a four-storey office building in central Moscow; the CPRF and the SPS are also well situated. Maintaining the established opposition parties is fairly inexpensive for the Kremlin – the advantages of their presence on the political field are far more valuable.

How did the Kremlin persuade members of the Other Russia to announce their presidential ambitions? All it had to do was convince them that a solitary opposition candidate would certainly be disqualified, so it would be necessary to prepare several individuals for the race. Moreover, certain members of the Other Russia started receiving some interesting proposals from the second Kremlin party, Just Russia, with offers of places on its candidate list. Sergei Mironov’s party is acting like a vacuum cleaner, collecting any opposition politicians who can’t find a common language with United Russia but aren’t in hard-line opposition either.

Duma members Valery Zubov and Svyatoslav Naryshkin, former participants in the deregistered Republican Party of Russia, have already been seen in the company of Just Russia representatives. Negotiations with Vladimir Ryzhkov himself are under way.

A separate cause of conflict within the Other Russia concerned spending plans for any funds that might be collected for the opposition candidate’s campaign. According to our sources, Kasyanov was offered support in exchange for firing his campaign team – there were plenty of people eager to become his campaign manager. But Kasyanov, an investor in the opposition project, insisted that his campaign must be run by Konstantin Merzlikin and none other.

Discord in the opposition camp is so strong that any contact with representatives of the Kremlin – or even a rumor of such contact – is terribly damaging.

And then several news agencies reported that companies controlled by oligarch Oleg Deripaska were about to purchase MK Analitika, Kasyanov’s consulting company, for $15-20 million. The Other Russia’s internal grapevine immediately started saying that this was a bribe for Kasyanov to quit politics, proving that he’d never seriously intended to run for president. Kasyanov and Deripaska both denied the reports; but denials only add fuel to the flames in such cases.

Kasyanov has had to justify and explain his actions all the time, and this is not a good position for the start of an election campaign.

Thus, while sacrificing hardly anything at all, the Kremlin has ensured that there won’t be any common candidate representing all opposition forces in the presidential election of 2008; so the question of who comes to power will be decided entirely within the Kremlin.

Another reason for this maneuver’s success is that the presidential administration was correct in its reading of the psychology of opposition leaders. In reality, almost none of them are serious about trying to get into power (Kasyanov was an exception). What all the candidates really want is to remain in politics and secure a cosy position as leader of a political party.

A hint sufficed to scare them off: the prospect that Kasyanov’s nomination as leader of the united opposition would make the CPRF and Yabloko leaders irrelevant. Even if Kasyanov lost the 2008 election, he would still become the opposition leader for the next political cycle, to 2012. Russian and Western journalists would seek to interview Kasyanov, not the other party leaders. Kasyanov would be invited to various events and asked to present an alternative view of developments in Russia. Kasyanov would negotiate with the Kremlin and its representatives. This is how Yeltsin moved to the foreground, taking the limelight from Gdlyan, Travkin, Afanasiev, and other now-forgotten first-wave democratic leaders. History would have repeated itself.

And what would become of all the others?

Previous articleTHE WILL OF THE GODS