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2008 Presidential election – an opening salvo?

Former Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov is the subject of a criminal investigation over an illegal property purchase.  Kasyanov, who was Prime Minister through almost all of Putin’s first term, has been strongly critical of Putin during this last year, and is perhaps the most credible ‘opposition’ figure to emerge so far as a candidate for the 2008 Presidential Election, so it is unsurprising that the sceptical among us (myself included) might think that this investigation has some political motivations.

Essentially the investigation is about whether Kasyanov abused his powers to allow a front company to purchase some land at a knock down price on the day he left office last year.  The Guardian reports the details as follows:

In an article in the newspaper Moskovski Komsomolets last week, Mr Khinshtein claimed Mr Kasyanov acquired a dacha once occupied by Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologist to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, in a corrupt auction.

The report alleged that the lease on the land where the dacha stood, worth an estimated£16m, was then acquired for a knockdown price by a front company acting for Mr Kasyanov and his wife, Irina.

The 11.5 hectares of state land in Troitse-Lykovo, western Moscow, is on the banks of the river next to a dacha owned by the reclusive former dissident writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn. It includes a tennis court and a private beach.

Kasyanov, of course, has denied any wrong-doing.  It’s also important to point out that, at this stage, this is merely an investigation.  No charges have been pressed, and there is no certainty that they will be.  Nevertheless, it is hard to see this as anything but politically motivated. 

Kasyanov probably isn’t a whiter than white character – in fact I doubt there are many of those left in Russian politics – but neither are most people connected to the Kremlin.  But those with links to the Kremlin aren’t the ones that face high profile criminal investigations and trials – instead, time after time, high profile investigations are directed against those who would dare to be critical of Vladimir Putin.  Looking at the number of high profile court cases/criminal investigations over the past five years, I can’t think of a single case of a high profile case against a pro-Kremlin politician or oligarch.  It’s a simple point, but it bears repeating – the Kremlin uses the law to protect its friends and attack its enemies.

Although Kasyanov was Putin’s Prime Minister for four years, he is now a fairly vocal critic of Putin and is regularly named as a potential Viktor Yushchenko-style challenger to the status-quo in the Kremlin.  Kasyanov has so far remained quiet on his intention to run for the Presidency in 2008, restricting himself to enigmatic comments like "Everything is possible."  But, if one looks at his criticisms of the government, and Putin in particular over the last 12 months, it seems fairly clear that he is positioning himself for a tilt at the Presidency, should he still think he has a chance in 2008.

In my estimation, this investigation is largely a warning shot across the Kasyanov campaign’s bows.  If Kasyanov quietly bows out of politics, the investigation will be quietly shelved (although probably not closed entirely – it’ll most likely be kept over Kasyanov to prevent a return to politics).  However, if Kasyanov judges that the investigation isn’t likely to pin anything concrete on him, or that promoting himself as a martyr will actually help his campaign, he’ll continue his anti-Putin rhetoric – maybe even step it up a notch.  It will be interesting to watch Kasyanov’s reaction over the coming weeks and months, after which I think we’ll have a much better idea of how serious he is about running for the Presidency.

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