The tsar, the oligarch and the blogger: who’s who in the new Russian politics

by Dr Alison Smith

The fallout from Russia’s ‘stolen’ parliamentary election ten days ago has barely subsided, but both the Kremlin and the opposition have their sights set on March’s presidential race.  For the first time since 1999, there are new faces on the scene.    Here’s your latest guide to who’s who in Russian politics:

The Tsar: Despite demonstrations contesting United Russia’s victory in the parliamentary election, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s leader for the last twelve years, remains the man to beat.    Many Russians have tired of his authoritarian style and action man image, but independent pollsters still put his popularity ratings in the high forties.  Between now and next March, he is sure to announce new state initiatives to attract voters – perhaps an increase in pensions or a lowering of fuel duty.  If all else fails, Putin controls Russia’s ‘administrative resource’, which can arrange everything from bribery to ballot box stuffing.  Although March’s elections will be intensely scrutinised, Putin can still count on 99% support in regions like Chechnya and Ingushetia.

The Oligarch: Russia’s increasingly surreal political scene wouldn’t be complete without a 6’ 8” nickel magnate who owns the New York Jets.  Mikhail Prokhorov made a brief foray into politics in the summer of 2011, joining the pro-business political party, Right Cause. He picked up considerable support but resigned in September 2011, disillusioned by Right Cause’s  role as a ‘Kremlin puppet party’.   However, the dynamics of Russian politics have changed since last summer.  Although Prokhorov’s presidential candidacy is unlikely to be directly adversarial to Putin, he will be permitted a much longer leash this time.  Presidential elections are winner-takes-all affairs, so anything that splits the vote of liberal-leaning voters will be to Putin’s benefit.

The Blogger:  A lawyer and social activist, Alexey Navalny, has been thrust into a leadership role after his blog inspired protestors to dub United Russia ‘The Party of Swindlers and Thieves’.     Using his twitter feed (135,750 followers) and his blog (61,184 followers), he called on ‘nationalists, liberals, leftists, greens, vegetarians and Martians’ to protest the against electoral irregularities, unifying Russia’s disparate opposition in a way that hasn’t been seen since 1993. Navalny is currently serving fifteen days in prison for his role in the post-election protests, further enhancing his anti-regime credentials. However, if street protests give way to regular political debate, Navalny’s views are likely to prove divisive in liberal middle class circles; he was kicked out of the Yabloko party for his strong Russian nationalist opinions, including hostility to people from central Asia and the Caucuses.

Height Matters?  Mikhail Prokhorov is 6’ 8”.  Alexey Navalny is universally described as being ‘very tall’.  Vladimir Putin is only 5’ 7”, and is famously touchy about his height.  Somebody get the poor man a box to stand on!