Russia’s groundbreaking achievement in the realm of elections is the idea of presidential candidates’ debates conducted not by the candidates themselves but by their representatives. This is the result of the race’s favorite decision. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin decided not to take part in the debates.
The idea was and is that a real leader will never stoop so low as to discuss anything with the puppets and nonentities that any opposition is by definition – if one observes the surrounding landscape from a Kremlin tower. And it is probably not such a wrong idea either if one considers that all public “opposition” to Putin is, in fact, closely connected to the executive authority, i.e. the collective “Kremlin,” if not outright vetted by them since the late 1990s. Still democratic decorum has to be preserved, and especially so in a time of political turbulence.
Even Mr. Putin felt that “the times they-are-a-changin’” and delegated some of his prominent supporters – usually famous figures from the world of culture and sports – to take part in debates instead of him. This led to other candidates doing the same thing. Recently, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov fielded his sister, publisher and philanthropist, Irina, to debate the state of Russian culture with director, actor and producer Nikita Mikhalkov – one of Russia’s most famous and most scandalous cinematographers. Mikhalkov is famous for his fawning attitude to the powers that be. He was, successively, the fan and supporter of Boris Yeltsin, Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev. Now that Putin aims at a comeback to the presidential office, Mikhalkov is back in the saddle promoting him. Those few who settled in front of their TVs to watch the debate did not expect much excitement. They were wrong.
The Mikhalkov-Prokhorova TV clash proved to be anything but dull. In fact it was for the first time that a substantial discussion of two definitely tenacious but cultured personalities took place on TV. Gone were the flat jokes, the rudeness, propaganda clichés – in general, everything that characterized the candidates’ debates since candidate number one decided to abstain. I am not certain that Mr. Mikhalkov performed better than Mr. Putin would (they are too different in style and substance) but it is quite clear that Ms Prokhorova managed to beat her own brother hands down in terms of warmth, agility, reasoning and emotion. Mikhail Prokhorov himself usually comes across as a calculating, cold person who is not at all passionate about anything but executing his numerous and successful business projects.
On the tenth minute of the debate, the Russian segments of Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with praise for Ms Prokhorova and even suggestions that it is she who should have run for president. The paradox is that this was supposed to be a surrogate of a real political slugging match. The issue of culture – usually the furthest from the minds of any electorate in any part of the world – suddenly took on a new meaning, with the two nominal “representatives” of two absent “heavyweights,” discussing education, identity, religion and even Mr. Prokhorov’s personal life (at 47 he is still a bachelor). The last two are rarely mentioned in Russian political debates. These topics are considered to be “improper” by older people and “irrelevant” by the younger and more liberal ones.
Still when one comes to think about the responsibilities that the Russian head of state has – like being commander-in-chief of the armed forces and guarantor of the country’s constitution – one cannot help admitting that personal convictions, lifestyle and tastes do count here.
Ms Prokhorova managed to stave off Mr. Mikhalkov’s challenge on behalf of her brother as best she could. Where the billionaire’s sister sounded unconvincing was when she tried to explain what attracts Mr. Prokhorov to politics. There are persistent rumors in Moscow that the successful businessman threw his hat into the ring at the personal request of Mr. Putin himself who needed to show that presidential elections-2012 are a genuine contest and not a sham as the opposition claims. His sister failed to dispel this notion. In fact, Mr. Prokhorov’s less successful fellow oligarch who turned prisoner, the former owner of Yukos oil company Mikhail Khodorkovsky looks much more like a real politician, despite his removal from the public scene (but not the public eye).
What both she and Mr. Mikhalkov managed to dispel very successfully is the idea that the Russian public is not ready for an intelligent, meaningful, no-holds-barred political debate. It is and will want more of it.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and may not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
What is Russia's place in this world? Unashamed and unreconstructed Atlanticist, Konstantin von Eggert believes his country to be part and parcel of the "global West." And while this is a minority view in Russia, the author is prepared to fight from his corner.
Konstantin Eggert is a commentator and host for radio Kommersant FM, Russia's first 24-hour news station. In the 1990s he was Diplomatic Correspondent for “Izvestia” and later the BBC Russian Service Moscow Bureau Editor. Konstantin has also spent some time working as ExxonMobil Vice-President in Russia. He was made Honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.