Prokhorov and the post-political-party party

Mikhail Prokhorov during his news conference on June 4, 2012. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

Mikhail Prokhorov during a press conference on June 4. AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko

Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball club as well as a good chunk of the Russian economy, has created a new political party, but refused to join it.

It is a characteristically inscrutable move by Prokhorov, whose political career is nothing if not an exercise in creativity. Last fall he established a political party which then summarily expelled him, following which he ran for President, declaring that with his $18bn fortune, he “represented the Russian middle class”. He came a surprising third in March.

Now comes a political party which, he says, is “not a political project” and thus is ideally suited to the “post-political-party age”. He has named it “Civic Platform”.

Channelling a combination of Thomas Friedman and Jean-François Lyotard in a packed Monday press conference, Prokhorov set out his vision: in today’s world “horizontal and network relationships” have already made “vertical authority” irrelevant. Traditional political parties are dead – “they just don’t know it.”

Thus, it stands to reason, there is no need for a political party, only “a community of people who share our values”, as he put it.

Notionally, designing a political party for the post-political-party age is an extremely tough ask, and it remains to be seen whether Mr Prokhorov’s optimism about the inevitable triumph of the “horizontal” over the “vertical” will be borne out, especially in Russia, where - lest anyone forget – the vertical is still going strong, twelve years into the Vladimir Putin era.

However, Prokhorov says he will aim the party not at the summit of high politics dominated by the Kremlin, but at the municipal level, principally at the 23 cities of over 500,000 people – what he calls the “carcass of Russia” [it sounds better in Russian]. In these cities – unlike politics on the federal level, which are hostage to the Kremlin’s political machine, the United Russia party – electoral battles still rage. Occasionally.

Indeed, in several of these cities, United Russia is in trouble. One of the politicians who shared the stage with Prokhorov Monday was Yevgeny Urlashov, the mayor of Yaroslavl, a colourful Volga river town near Moscow. Mr Urlashov quit United Russia last year, resigning the mayorship, and won the post back in April as an independent with 70 per cent of the vote on a “throw the bums out” platform.

Prokhorov’s decision not to join his own party is based on recent changes to the law on political parties, he said, which allows non-party members to enter elections on a party’s ticket. This obviates the need for the party to have actual members, and he himself does not exclude one day running for Moscow city mayor on the non-ticket of his non-party.

There are indeed other pesky attributes of the pre-post political party age which Prokhorov wants to do away with. Civic Platform will have no identifiable ideology (“because we are a post industrial society”), and despite the name, there will be no talk of a platform (“there is no difference between right and left anymore”).

It will cooperate with both the regime and the opposition. The decisions of which candidates to support and which causes to promote will be left up to everyone who “will make their own personal decision”.

In the end, the party he envisions will consist solely of a license from the Justice Ministry and 500 members who will “hold onto the license which will allow the leaders of civil society to enter elections.”

It remains to be seen whether anyone will take seriously Prokhorov’s commitment to a party he refuses to join, a step which is likely to be read as a lack of commitment (or fear of an Arctic labour camp) rather than post modern esprit joueur.

“Prokhorov created party which he won’t join. That’s original” tweeted Alexei Pushkov, a parliamentary deputy elected on the United Russia ticket. “I guess everyone is still planning to join United Russia.”