Russia's Potemkin Candidate (Newsday Op-Ed)
by Robert A. Saunders on December 16th, 2011

Originally published in Newsday: December 13, 2011 6:35 PM

During the reign of Catherine the Great in the late 18th century, Grigory Potemkin -- one of the Empress of Russia's favorite ministers (and reputed lover) -- burnished his reputation and that of his liege by putting up brilliantly painted façades in certain villages in southern Russia.

Visiting dignitaries from Europe toured these idealized hamlets, which later became known as "Potemkin villages," and left with the impression that the Russian countryside was on the way to modernity. Had these diplomats attempted to peer behind the curtain of deceit, they would have found a realm mired in the Middle Ages, bereft of the hallmarks of progress that characterized the rest of the continent.

Currently, we are seeing a similar process underway in the Russian political system. Vladimir Putin, who served as president of the Russian Federation from 2000 to 2008 and as the country's prime minster since then, is running for head of state once again.

The United States should be watching closely. If elected, Putin can be expected to return to the presidency with a muscular agenda for bolstering Russian influence across the former Soviet Union. As Pakistan transitions from U.S. ally to adversary, Washington is coming to rely on Russia's influence in Central Asia in order to proceed with the supply and eventual withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan -- a dependency that will become more acute, and problematic, in the coming year. And Putin will surely seek to make good on his country's recent claims to the lion's share of the natural resources beneath the floor of the Arctic Ocean.

But first will come Russia's March 2012 presidential elections. Due to the failure of a strong political party system and plural democracy to take root under Russia's first president, Boris Yeltsin, the dominant political force in the country -- in this case, Putin -- enjoys the power to dictate the outcome of the electoral process. Unlike proper authoritarian regimes where political dissent is crushed with an iron fist, Russia is what might be called a postmodern authoritarian state. All the elements of liberal democracy are present, but they're ultimately a mirage.

The most recent evidence of this state of affairs is the pseudo-candidacy of Mikhail Prokhorov.

The billionaire metals magnate and owner of the New Jersey Nets declared on Monday that he is running for the top post, apparently providing a viable option for those wishing for "anyone but Putin" to succeed the current president and Putin ally Dmitry Medvedev. Having made his fortune in the privatization of the profitable nickel industry before moving into gold mining, Prokhorov might appear poised to strike it rich in politics.

But that's not how things work in contemporary Russia.

Putin has likely recognized that he has violated the social contract with Russia's middle class, which has been on the streets of Moscow in on-and-off demonstrations since the disputed parliamentary results were announced earlier this month. In order to maintain the façade of liberal democracy, Putin now needs a "genuine" competitor in the presidential race. Cue the Potemkin candidate: Prokhorov.

As the most independent-minded of the country's wealthy oligarchs -- that is, of those who have not been stripped of their fortunes, imprisoned, or exiled -- Prokhorov represents the natural choice. With broad name recognition, an international profile, and seemingly unlimited funds to set up a political party to hawk himself to the masses, the Nets owner will lend the coming presidential election an air of legitimacy.

But Prokhorov's candidacy is a fig leaf covering the ugly truths of the Russian political system. In time, Prokhorov will demonstrate that he is simply a bit of ornamentation, with no real ideas for addressing Russia's problems. And while we all have something pretty to look at, Putin's victory in the coming election is just as assured as it was a few weeks ago.

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