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Opinion: Mikhail Kasyanov without the spin


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle).

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is under investigation for defrauding the state in a property transaction just prior to his dismissal in 2004.

Already Western op-eds and news stories have adopted a number of cliches to describe Kasyanov's legal travails as: "Putin critic under investigation" and "Putin critic on corruption charge." Before Western readers accept such uncritical and unbiased appraisals of these unfolding events, they should first learn more about the real Mikhail Kasyanov.

Since Kasyanov returned to public life in February, he has strongly hinted that he may revisit the world of politics and in opposition to the Kremlin. In a masterful show of polished public relations while Vladimir 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." Kasyanov was clearly appealing to Russian liberals and the West in an attempt to repackage and distance himself from a very dubious past.

Reinventing himself is not impossible, but Kasyanov carries a lot of baggage.

First, Kasyanov's political pedigree should not be forgotten. Kasyanov is a "Family" man; meaning he was part of the insider political establishment during the chaotic years under former president Boris Yelstin. Instead of observing the rule of law, Kasyanov engaged in influence peddling and punished opponents of the "Family's" rule. These are not the most convincing credentials from a politician hoping to advance Russia's democracy.

Second, while the vast majority of Russians fell into poverty during the 1990s as a result of legally questionable privatization of state property, Kasyanov is known to have lived the good life and earned himself the nickname "Misha 2%" for alleged personal corruption. If even one of the many charges of alleged abuse of office is true, Kasyanov could face jail that makes the current investigation concerning a real estate transaction pale in comparison. How in the world could a civil servant, after being finance minister and prime minister, afford to purchase - even at a knocked down price - an elite piece of property? One can easily ask the question how much different Kasyanov is from Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Is it merely the degree of wealth accumulation at the expense of the state interests?

Third, when it comes to freedom of expression, Kasyanov was remarkably silent as prime minister during the saga that witnessed the state's takeover of Gusinsky's media empire, including NTV. Gusinsky's negative coverage of "Family" interests during the 1999 parliamentary resulted in his arrest, released, and later self-imposed exile. Where were Kasyanov's free media instincts then?

Fourth, while serving as prime minister, Kasyanov was the "oligarchs' broker" along with former presidential head of staff Alexander Voloshin. Kasyanov understood very well that he would never be accepted as a Kremlin insider under Putin. He was a temporary political appointee representing the interests of the "Family" and the system of oligarchic capitalism it created. Kasyanov knew that his time in power would eventually come to an end. After all, he is one of the creators of the Russia's post-communist political order - he knows how the system works. (As an aside, Voloshin has demonstrated very well how to play by the political rule that he helped to bring into reality: when your time is up, you retire from the field with grace and a modicum of personal security. When is the last time Voloshin's name could be seen in the headlines?)

Fifth, Kasyanov most likely broke the terms and conditions of his "severance package." In his dramatic, but staged, return to public life and hinted ambitions to dive back into politics he attacked the culture of politics that he helped to create. In doing so, he showed himself to be a person with few principles. It is no wonder Russia's liberal and opposition establishments have kept him at arms length.

Sixth, given Kasyanov's past, it is not hard to figure out what his true aims are. Kasyanov was clearly seeking to position himself as Russia's "Orange" candidate in 2008 with the design to rally big business and Western governments to his cause. However, Kasyanov is not another Viktor Yushchenko. He is more akin to Yulia Timoshenko - using the call for democracy and Western liberalism as a smokescreen for asset division among competing clans.

Is there any hope for Kasyanov and his ambitions to get back in the political arena? Kasyanov is very media savvy. Clearly he is aware how the Menatep Group has spent millions of dollar to influence and control public Western public opinion regarding the judicial proceedings against Yukos and Khodorkovsky.

It is very possible that Kasyanov is expected to challenge his dubious past in court, with the hope that paid for media and public relations will make him into a political martyr showing him to be "Russia's savoir." This scenario should all too obvious.

Kasyanov is banking on expensive public relations and political spin to resurrect his political fortunes. The Kremlin should do just the opposite and expose Kasyanov for what he really is - greedy, ambitious, duplicitous, and a poor sport.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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