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By John Helmer, Moscow

Mikhail Prokhorov’s last attempt but one to gather popularity among Russians was the idea that they should be compelled to work harder each hour and for up to 60 hours per week. That doesn’t sound like an election clincher anywhere in the known world, does it?.

Prokhorov’s last attempt but two was what he calls the “remodelling” of the term snob, to sell a social network site and magazine in Russia, and then to make the product international, or at least northeast American. The person who edits this product described its popularity this way: “something that fills the space between politics and movie reviews — sex, food, children, urban issues.” Launched last September, the product has reportedly won the advertising vote of Maserati, Christie’s art auction house, the New Yorker, and Lufthansa.

It’s not certain that Prokhorov’s latest bid in the popularity stakes was an idea he or his circle of advisors had thought up themselves, because it’s on the other side, the right side of politics. But as ideas go, it has a sterling history – sterling silver that is, and in imperial China.

Between 1736 and 1795, Emperor Qianlong ruled his empire, retiring just one year short of the record set by his grandfather, Kang-Hsi. Qianlong’s idea was that he would prepare a retirement home in a corner of Beijing’s Forbidden City, and stock it with treasures to keep his mind and other bodily parts beguiled, after he’d let go of power politics.

The latest Chinese research reveals that Qianlong used to commission miniature models of what he had in mind for interior decoration, and send them off to wealthy bureaucrats, generals, and business types on whom the emperor’s Secret Accounts Bureau had the goods. The targets were told that they could either finance the emperor’s fancy; or face trial and punishment for their corruption and other crimes; or commit suicide. The response was almost unanimous – approximately five million ounces were subscribed. The nickname at the time for the payoff was yizui yin – penitence silver.

On May 13, Prokhorov announced that if drafted by the Right Cause (Pravoye Delo) political party, he will lead the party’s ticket in the national parliamentary elections due in December. “I have made this difficult, and to a great extent unexpected, decision,” Prokhorov announced on state television. This is notwithstanding his admission that he had turned down an earlier approach in April; and was then persuaded to reconsider by his sister. “My goal is to take second place in the parliamentary elections this year,” he has declared.

In the present State Duma, which was elected in December 2007, the Kremlin party United Russia, won 64.3% of the votes, and occupies 315 of the Duma’s 450 seats. The Communiist Party came second, with 11.6% of the vote, and 57 seats. Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia ranks third, with 8.1% of the 2007 vote and 40 seats. Fair Russia (Spravedlivaya Rossiya) came fourth, with 7.7% and 38 seats. What Prokhorov means is to replace the Communists in the popularity ranking.

To share the financing costs, he has also said that his silent (untalkative) business partner, Suleiman Kerimov, will join the party ticket. Kerimov is the more politically experienced of the two; he occupied a seat in the State Duma from 1999 to 2007, and since then he serves as a senator for Dagestan in the Federation Council.

Established in 2008 out of the ruins of the Union of Right Forces – their vote-winners have included such blasts from the past as Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Irina Hakamada and Boris Nemtsov – the party’s peak performance was 8.6% in the Duma election of 1999, with 32 seats. When Nemtsov failed to win more than 4% of the 2003 parliamentary vote, he gave way to Nikolai Belykh, who drew 0.96% of the votes in 2007. He has withdrawn in favour of the current head of the Right Cause party, Leonid Gozman. Gozman has announced that “for us and our comrades the matter has been decided – we will support Prokhorov’s nomination and we will be in the majority. On this format [Prokhorov’s leadership] the Right Cause has a 100% chance of clearing the 7% barrier in the Duma elections.”

If Prokhorov and Kerimov could match the 1999 vote of the predecessor formation, that would probably surprise those who persuaded Prokhorov to put up the silver for this election decoration. Before his candidacy began, the last poll measure of voter support for the Right Cause in the parliamentary vote was 0.3%. Analysts who think the scheme is a Kremlin operation believe Prokhorov will be allowed to draw 2% of the vote. Prokhorov himself has said that if this is the best he can do, he would walk. “A leader who has failed to do his job must leave,” Prokhorov told a radio interviewer recently. But if he succeeds to cross the 7% threshold, he is also making no commitments to take his seat in the Duma.

Andrei Belyak, spokesman for Prokhorov at his asset holding Onexim, says that since the initial announcement, “nothing special has happened. The party is working and Mr. Prokhorov is preparing his program. It is now up to the party congress to accept his membership and to appoint him chairman.” The party has scheduled that for June 25. No major public opinion pollster has attempted to measure voter reaction yet. According to Denis Volkov of the Levada Centre, “this poll is scheduled for June.”

For the time being, Prokhorov has made almost no programmatic remarks. Some sources in Moscow claim he won’t be needing them, so long as he sticks to keeping the Right Cause out of the hands of supporters of Dmitry Medvedev to mobilize against United Russia and Putin’s second vehicle for public sentiment, the All-Russia Popular Front.

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