Tsar’s Gambit

Keeping the Russian Opposition in Check

Were Josef Stalin a chess player, he would’ve looked a lot like Vladimir V. Putin. Just ask Garry Kasparov, the grandmaster-turned-oppositional-candidate who didn’t even make the 2008 ballot after somehow not being able to find one meeting hall in Moscow that would allow him to hold a constitutionally-required political rally.

For the past twelve years, Putin has kept the entire Russian political system in check by neutering the post-Soviet oligarchy, dominating media outlets, and cultivating his own brand of charismatic machismo. After an election two weeks ago that, despite significant evidence of tampering, still handed his United Russia party large parliamentary losses, Putin’s tight grasp on the country is for the first time wavering. But don’t look for the Teflon Tsar to go down easily: he personally remains quite popular and, provided he doesn’t overplay his position with physical repression, he can continue to reign for as long as he desires.

The evidence of electoral fraud in the recent Duma election is overwhelming. In some regions turnout was as high as 146 percent. Additionally, United Russia polled at 99.5 percent in Chechnya, astonishing due to the fact that Putin made his name as President during the violent repression of Chechen rebels a decade ago. Even Mikhail Gorbachev has demanded that the elections be held again in light of the evidence of tampering.

The most obvious sign of Putin’s confidence is the recently-announced candidacy of Mikhail Prokhorov in March’s upcoming presidential election. The vote was and is still expected to be Putin’s recoronation after allowing his proxy Dmitry Medvedev to hold the seat for one term so as to not explicitly violate the constitutional limit of two consecutive terms.

Basketball fans will recognize Prokhorov as the Russian billionaire who bought a majority stake in the New Jersey Nets two years ago. Russians will recognize him as one of the handful of Boris Yeltsin’s friends who, during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, acquired Russia’s natural resources for pennies on the dollar. In Prokhorov’s case, he used his political connections to acquire Norilsk Nickel, which owns the largest reserve of the metal in the world, as well as major stakes in gold and aluminum interests, and became the third-richest man in Russia.


One of the keys to Putin’s lasting success has been his tight control of this class of oligarchs, who are ultimately the only men with the resources truly to challenge his rule. Upon his rise to power in late 1999, Putin collected the oligarchs and issued a simple ultimatum: if they stay out of politics, their misbegotten wealth is safe. Those who violated this agreement have suffered the consequences. Media baron Boris Berezovsky remains in exile in Britain after speaking out against Putin’s proposed constitutional changes, and has since had two attempts on his life by suspected Russian agents. Similarly, media magnate Vladimir Gusinsky was forced into exile in Israel after clashing with Putin in 2001.

The most prominent example of this ongoing subjugation of the oligarchy was the 2003 arrest and conviction of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then the richest man in Russia, of tax evasion after he began to finance opposition parties and hinted at contesting Putin in the 2004 presidential election. Khodorkovsky remains in jail to this day, though Prokhorov announced he would pardon him and Putin suggested that, if reelected, he too would free Khodorkovsky.

So why does the emergence of Prokhorov demonstrate Putin’s overarching calmness? Because it appears that he will actually be permitted to run. Prokhorov knows exactly what happens to those oligarchs who truly battle Putin. He knows that his wealth, power, and lack of incarceration rely on a good relationship with the Kremlin. In fact, the best possible scenario for the current administration is one in which Prokhorov becomes the main opposition figure and absorbs the anti-Putin popular anger. Most Russians resent the oligarchs for gobbling up public resources in the chaos of post-Soviet privatization, so Prokhorov would not be able to be the figurehead of the major wave of dissent that would be necessary for true change.

Putin needs a strong but beatable foil to avoid greater backlash after the March election. In chess terms, Putin’s battle with Prokhorov amounts to a feint, a way for him to distract the mounting opposition from the strategy that could actually beat him. And if Prokhorov does in fact attempt to become a serious rival in the vein of Vladimir Yushchenko, the Kremlin-opposed leader of the 2004 Ukranian Orange Revolution, he can expect the same counter moves Yushchenko endured. Bishop to Queen four? Dioxin poisoning to the face.

Putin is a cagy politician, and surely he has learned the lessons of the fallen Arab Spring dictators. Widespread violent repression leads to alienation and de-legitimization. Ignoring the opposition allows it to grow and reach critical mass. For the first time in his regime Putin is going to have to acknowledge and permit a dissenting voice, so he might as well hand-select a fool’s mate.

Sam N. Adams ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House. His column has appeared on alternate Wednesdays this semester.


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