MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle).
Russia’s General Prosecutor's Office is not commenting, but it is believed a criminal case had been opened against former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov on charges of "inflicting material damage through deception or abuse of trust." The former prime minister denies any wrongdoing. Is Kasyanov, who has not ruled out running for the presidency in 2008, a political threat to the ruling classes? Kasyanov’s chances of succeeding Vladimir Putin are slim at best, but bringing criminal charges against him now may only make his candidacy more attractive for opposition forces and Western pundits.
Accusations of corruption and abuse of office are nothing new for Kasyanov. As finance minister under Boris Yeltsin and prime minister under during Putin’s first term in office, Kasyanov earned the nicknamed “Misha 2%” from those who suggest he padded his own pocket when either negotiating Russia’s foreign debt or deal making for Russia’s “oligarchs.” However, this is the first time Kasyanov has been charged with a crime while he served as a state official.
Kasyanov is believed to be under investigation for acquiring an elite piece of property at lower than market value on the day he was dismissed from office in 2004. According to the pro-Kremlin lawmaker Alexander Khinshtein and anti-corruption muckraker, Kasyanov purchased a country dacha once occupied by Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologist to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and bordering the property owned by the reclusive former Soviet dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn in a rigged auction.
This may or not be proven to be true, but the fallout resulting from this charge smacks of political intrigue. Is Kasyanov being given a not so subtle message to stay out of politics? Is this an attempt to publicly tar his name in the eyes of other liberals in opposition who may enlist his support in the 2007 parliamentary elections and 2008 presidential election? If this is the gambit, attacking Kasyanov through the counts may by unwise and could quite possibly backfire.
Ever since Kasyanov returned to public life in February of this year, he has strongly hinted that be may return to the world of politics and in opposition to the Kremlin. In a masterful show of polished public relations while Putin was out of the country Kasyanov announced, “It is not important who comes to power in 2008. It is important that this person becomes the leader of movement toward democratic values.” In these two sentences he appealed to many liberals opposed to the Kremlin and the West at the same time.
Kasyanov is known to have already sought and secured Western backers and sounded out support among Russia’s liberal opposition. The new leadership of the liberal party Union of Right Forces has considered inviting Kasyanov (and jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovsky) to top the party’s list during the 2007 parliamentary elections.
However, beyond polished PR, Western support, and the gracious invitation from a political party on the verge of extinction (particularly since it is interested in enlisting the help of a convicted felon), Kasyanov’s political prospects are a long shot at best.
Kasyanov may believe he can do the impossible: unite Russia’s much fractured liberal opposition. In fact, he may do the opposite. Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of liberal party Yabloko, will certainly refrain from joining a liberal united front that allows a disgraced and jailed oligarch in their ranks. Kasyanov certainly understands the political math facing Russia liberal parties. In light of new elections laws, Russia’s liberal parties very much to need to decide a leader who unite them or face being shut out of parliament again. Kasyanov is not that person today.
Kasyanov may also believe he can promote himself a successful government manager. Indeed and in retrospect, Kasyanov does appear to be a much better manager compared with his successor Mikhail Fradkov. However, this political turn of hand can work for Kasyanov only so far. Public perception of Kasyanov is that of a politician who managed to protect and promote the interests of a small group of super-wealthy “oligarchs.”
Western interest in Kasyanov began during Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution,” with the hope of finding a Russian version of Viktor Yushchenko. Kasyanov is no Yushchenko and if he tried to spin himself as such the voters would reject him as a Western stooge. Any Russian politician who claims to be the West’s candidate will simply play into the hands of radical nationalists.
Given Kasyanov’s unlikely political future, what accounts for the renewed charges of corruption and criminal investigation?
First and unlikely, the initiative to start a criminal investigation concerning Kasyanov is Khinshtein’s and could be dropped as suddenly as it appeared.
Second and cited above, the goal is to embarrass Kasyanov publicly for a short time, remind voters of his nickname, and ruffle the feathers of the liberal opposition.
Third, it is an all out attack to derail Kasyanov’s return to politics. Under the Russian Criminal Code, a person convicted of “material damage through deception or abuse of trust" can be given a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
If the third scenario is in play, it will be entirely unnecessary and an example of counter-productive electioneering. As a presidential candidate, Kasyanov would probably garner as many votes as his nickname - 2%. He is not a real political threat to anyone, particularly the Kremlin.
However, prosecuting Kasyanov now could send a negative message that Russia’s upcoming political season could become very nasty. The Kremlin should leave Kasyanov alone and allow him to crash and burn all on his own - he needs no outside help. A witch hunt against Kasyanov could backfire, turning “Misha 2%” into some kind of modern day dissident and man of conscience like his neighbor Alexander Solzhenitsyn was under the communists.
THE OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE THOSE OF THE AUTHOR AND MAY NOT NECESSARILY REPRESENT THE OPINIONS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD.