Is this gangling billionaire just a patsy or a real threat to Putin?

The election in Russia has thrown up a man who seems to offer what the public wants... or does he? By Shaun Walker

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The Independent Online

Mikhail Prokhorov strode into the hall to a ripple of polite applause, his 6ft 8in- frame clad in a sharp suit and magenta tie. Russia's third-richest man was, until recently, most famous for his playboy lifestyle and his ownership of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Now, he wants to be the next president of Russia.

A wildcard candidate in the upcoming elections, Mr Prokhorov has promised to target the "active minority" of Russians, especially those who came onto the streets in December to protest against rigged parliamentary elections and the planned return of Vladimir Putin. The gangly oligarch will stand against Mr Putin on 4 March, in a race that, realistically, he has no chance of winning, meaning he has been forced to make repeated denials that he is a "stooge" candidate who can be used to channel discontent from the protest.

Over the weekend, he began his campaign in Kazan and, for the first time shared the full details of his manifesto. Together, the people in the hall were the embodiment of the new middle-class that has sprung up in Russia during the past decade.

More than 2,000 people turned out to meet the oligarch. Kazan now has shiny new shopping malls and international hotel chains, there are direct flights to Frankfurt and Istanbul, and the local football team, Rubin Kazan, have played in the Champions League. But no longer only satisfied with increased economic possibilities, many young people have become more politically active.

Mr Prokhorov opened with his life story, a rags-to-riches yarn typical of Russia's oligarch class. Growing up, he said, his family had no car and lived five people to a tiny apartment. Despite the fact that he would later become one of the richest people in the world, he claimed that the most important money for him was the very first roubles that he made.

"The best purchase I ever made was my first pair of jeans, which I still wear sometimes," he said. Most of what he says policy-wise sounds eminently sensible and it certainly resonated with the audience. Some of it sounded rather vague, but much consisted of concrete policy steps designed to appeal directly to disaffected youth. Perhaps the biggest cheer of the event came when he said he would end conscription to the army.

Most wealthy Russians manage to wiggle out of military service, but the difficult conditions and widespread "hazing" or harassment of conscripts are a shadow that hangs over young Russian men as they grow up.

The contender also promises to do more to promote visa-free travel for Russians to the European Union, to make life easier for start-up businesses and to restore confidence in the police. He would raise taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and luxury items, while lowering tax for business.

By the end of the session, the applause had become more heartfelt. There was a sense that Mr Prokhorov had genuinely impressed the crowd.

Of 20 random people questioned by i leaving the event, 17 said that they would vote for him.

Mr Putin's core demographic remains those Russians who are not online, and get their news from the state-controlled television. One of the young people in Kazan asked Mr Prokhorov how he would get his message to a wider audience. "The majority of people don't know who you are – those people who are offline; who don't use the internet," said the questioner. "They only watch the television and we all know what rubbish is on the television. How will you get your message across to them?"

Mr Prokhorov replied that he will send out teams of volunteers to inform people of his programme. But there have been suggestions that the oligarch does not want to be too successful. He has tried almost perversely hard to avoid direct criticism of Mr Putin, even while eviscerating the political system built by the Prime Minister.

Such reticence has led to further doubt about the genuineness of his bid. When asked by i in Kazan why he was so reluctant to criticise Mr Putin, he said he did not want to base his campaign on negativity.

"It's not only Putin – we are all guilty," he said. "Putin has pluses and minuses... On the whole I agree with the things that were said on Bolotnaya and Sakharova [the two big Moscow protests], but why should I always repeat this?"

Russian magazine The New Times has even quoted a source close to Mr Prokhorov, saying that the oligarch decided to stand only after receiving a phonecall directly from Mr Putin asking him to do so. The clearest sign that Mr Prokhorov's campaign has the blessing of the Kremlin, at least tacitly, came yesterday when his application to join the ballot was tentatively approved by the Russian Central Election Commission, while Grigory Yavlinsky, from the liberal party, Yabloko, was denied registration.

"It's clear that Prokhorov supports Putin in one way or another," said political analyst Evgeny Minchenko.

The oligarch himself claims that his goal is to make it to a second round run-off with Mr Putin, something that the current opinion polls suggest is unlikely. It is possible that his ultimate goal is to be a reformist prime minister under a Putin presidency, but winning the presidency is a highly unlikely outcome.