“He took off the Kremlin dog collar,” said a friend of Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man, as the political party Prokhorov had founded to run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the December elections blew up in his face this month.

Prokhorov spent about $15 million setting up the new party, Right Cause, and now he wants his money back. The Kremlin stole the party from him, he claims, though he doesn’t blame President Dmitry Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir.

It can’t be the money that made him so cross: $15 million is about one-tenth of 1 percent of Prokhorov’s wealth. It can’t be a hunger for real democracy in Russia either; his party was being created with Kremlin backing, and the proof was that it was being allowed on television. That doesn’t happen without the government’s permission.

Putin & Co. had allegedly encouraged Prokhorov to launch Right Cause in order to provide a safe repository for the votes of businessmen and intellectuals who just couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Putin’s own United Russia Party anymore. It wouldn’t be a real opposition party with ambitions of its own, of course, but it would improve the optics of the situation and offer friendly criticism of the regime’s actions.

Such opposition is sorely needed, because many people in the Russian elite are getting fed up with Putin’s rule. When I was in Moscow recently, I went along to the 50th birthday party of a friend of a friend, and the dissatisfaction was palpable.

It was a tight circle of friends who had almost all known one another since university, most of them since school, and a few of them since kindergarten. It was a typical phenomenon of Soviet times, when you couldn’t trust anybody you hadn’t known all your life (and it is disappearing in the younger generation since the collapse of Communist rule in 1991).

Much has improved greatly in Russia since Soviet times, but this is an impending loss that is to be mourned. There are few countries where groups of people who have long since scattered to different professions, places and standards of living still stay loyal to their old friendships, even coming together to celebrate one another’s birthdays. (Call it an upside of repression.)

Three separate men who had done well in business in the new Russia, two of them factory owners, told me that they were thinking of voting for the Communists this time. Why? Because there is no other way to register a protest vote.

There isn’t. The Communists command a loyal group of voters who will never change their allegiance, but they are all getting older and they can never threaten the regime. All other “opposition” parties have either been neutered and co-opted, or else banned from taking part in elections on various technical pretexts.

So if you belong to the more intelligent wing of the ruling elite, then you try to create a different place where disgruntled intelligentsia and businessmen can park their protest votes. Perhaps a center-right party that will defend their economic interests, but offer an articulate critique of the regime’s policies.

Prokhorov’s party was never going to replace United Russia, but it’s entirely possible that some people around Putin — perhaps the even he himself — thought that cogent criticism from a loyal opposition might do them and the country some good.

Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to control the Russian political system as tightly as he does. Even after 11 years in power, he is immensely popular, for he has given Russians back their self-respect and a modest degree of prosperity. He would win a free election hands down no matter how many political parties competed and how easy their access to the mass media.

So in Russia’s long-term interest, he should lighten up a bit and allow the political system to evolve toward a genuine democracy — slowly, of course, for he still thinks he is indispensable to stability. Maybe that’s what he had in mind in allowing the creation of Prokhorov’s party. So what went wrong?

There are undoubtedly elements within the Putin regime who think no opposition should be tolerated, either because they fear anarchy or just because they think their own interests would suffer.

According to Prokhorov, the name of the chief villain is Vladislav Surkov.

The collapse of Prokhorov’s party was slapstick comedy: 21 “doubles” of authorized delegates arrived at Right Cause’s first major party conference with false papers. Real delegates were not admitted and the conference began without Prokhorov’s presence or permission. After that it went downhill very fast, with Prokhorov declaring his own breakaway party and then abandoning that as well, all within 24 hours.

He blamed Surkov, President Medvedev’s top aide. “We have a puppet master in the country, who long ago privatized the political system, and who for a long time has disinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system, who pressures the media … and tries to manipulate public opinion.”

Who knows?

It could have been Putin changing his mind. It could have been Surkov circumventing his wishes. But a credible non-Communist opposition party will not emerge in Russia this year.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

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