Russia's era of managed democracy is over, claims presidential candidate

Billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov who is running in 4 March election says it is time for evolution not revolution

A billionaire metals tycoon running for president in Russia's forthcoming election has claimed the era of "managed democracy" embodied by Vladimir Putin is dead.

Writing in the Guardian, Mikhail Prokhorov, 46, said Russia was "undergoing a true awakening" – while warning of a lingering threat of violence as opposition leaders plan a new mass demonstration against the rule of Putin, the prime minister, on 4 February.

"The only question now is will our road be bumpy and perhaps bloody, or will we avoid some of the pitfalls we've seen in our region and in others and pull off a gradual transition before things reach the boiling point," he wrote. "I, for one, am for the latter. Evolution, not revolution."

The comments are likely to provoke a mixture of scorn and sympathy because Prokhorov's candidacy is widely seen as a Kremlin project to leach votes from harsher opponents, whatever his own intentions or democratic leanings.

Analysts say mass street protests over Kremlin-manipulated parliamentary elections in December has prompted Putin's allies to create a semblance of choice by allowing unthreatening figures like Prokhorov to run for the presidency.

The entrepreneur, who made his fortune in gold and nickel and is worth an estimated £12bn, took the leadership of a minority Kremlin-linked party, Right Cause, last year. He later fell out with its handler, Vladislav Surkov, a right-hand man to Putin, calling him a "puppet master".

Prokhorov says he has severed ties with the ruling elite and he attended an 80,000-strong protest on 24 December, although he did not speak. However, he has never criticised Putin directly, and does not mention him or any other rival candidate for the 4 March election by name in his column.

Nonetheless, Prokhorov's sweeping calls to improve education, reduce the economy's dependence on oil and gas, and "uncoil the serpent of corruption" may find favour with some middle-class Russians, as will the idea that autocratic tendencies are waning. "The genie is out of the bottle and it's not going back in," he says. "The era of 'managed democracy' is over."

Also significant is Prokhorov's emphasis on universal European values and his criticism of Russia's new messianism, the idea the country has "its own 'special' fate, separate and distinct from everyone else". That rejection stands in sharp contrast to the theory of "sovereign democracy" once pushed by Surkov – and closely identified with Putin – which suggests Russia has its own mysterious determinants of progress.

Yet Prokhorov's credentials are likely to remain in dispute. A survey last month by the VTsIOM polling agency suggested he would take 4% of the presidential vote, compared with a predicted 45% for Putin (the only true social democrat, Grigory Yavlinsky, is expected to poll 2%).

Sceptics think Prokhorov will be one of half a dozen "approved" candidates used to soak up discontent with his soothing talk of inexorable change, while posing no real threat to Putin's supremacy. In this version, Putin may not take the needed 50% to win in the first round of the vote, but could go on to easily dispatch his closest challenger, the communist Gennady Zyuganov, in the second, while claiming there has been real competition. If Prokhorov does relatively well he could then be co-opted to take a government post.

Those with a more positive outlook argue that he retains some room for manoeuvre and demonstrates increasing pluralism. Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is not running for the presidency but who has led protests, was recently asked what he thought of Prokhorov's candidacy. "It's the Kremlin's Trojan project," he told Foreign Policy. "He's absolutely not independent. He will not win the presidential elections. Nevertheless, his entry into politics is a good thing because any new people, any new political entities make the political system better by offering more choice, more competition."

Russian politics is often characterised as an absurd and elaborate piece of theatre. Prokhorov brings no promise that the stage is about to go up in flames. But some may now hope the drapes are at least beginning to smoulder.


Tom Parfitt in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

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