One of Russia's richest oligarchs has thrown his hat into the ring for upcoming presidential elections in an unexpected move that some protesters feared was part of an elaborate Kremlin plot to defuse mounting discontent in the country.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the third richest man in Russia, announced his plan at a press conference in Moscow yesterday afternoon. "I've taken a decision which is perhaps the most important decision of my life," he said. "I am going to stand in the presidential elections."
Mr Prokhorov, a 46-year-old billionaire with a playboy reputation, made his money in finance and metals and owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Mr Prokhorov said yesterday that the middle class would be his core electorate. Over the summer he agreed to lead Right Cause, a new political party loosely backed by the Kremlin and aimed at businessmen and intellectuals, but he quit in September.
Since then he has been invisible, until yesterday's announcement, which came two days after the biggest protests in Russia since Vladimir Putin came to power in 2000. On Saturday, 50,000 people massed in central Moscow to demand a rerun of last week's parliamentary elections. The vote gave Mr Putin's United Russia party 49 per cent of the vote, amid widespread allegations of fraud. Although most analysts still expect Mr Putin to win presidential elections set for early March, there is no doubt that the political climate has changed. "Society is waking up," said Mr Prokhorov. "Political forces that don't engage in discussion with society will be swept away."
But analysts and some protesters immediately voiced scepticism over how serious Mr Prokhorov's ambitions could really be. The oligarch refrained from any personalised criticism of Mr Putin, and there was a suspicion that his announcement could be part of a careful gambit by the Kremlin to provide a controlled outlet for the release of steam.
"Prokhorov's task is to accumulate the protest votes and help Putin get elected," said Boris Nemtsov, one of the organisers of the recent mass protests.
When he left Right Cause in September, Mr Prokhorov blamed Vladislav Surkov, a secretive Kremlin official who is seen as the chief ideologue of Mr Putin's Russia and keeps a close watch on the "managed" opposition. The oligarch called Mr Surkov a "Kremlin puppet-master". Yesterday, he insisted he had not had any contact with either Mr Surkov or Mr Putin since he left Right Cause, and when asked how he would deal with the problem of Mr Surkov, he replied, "by becoming his boss".
However Mr Prokhorov's announcement, as well as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin's statement yesterday that he was interested in setting up a new liberal political party, was especially suspicious in the context of recent words from Mr Surkov. In a rare interview with a Russian blogger last week, he said the country needs "new faces" and that a "mass liberal party" to reflect the interests of disgruntled urban elites should be created. This could suggest that Mr Prokhorov's entrance into politics is not, in fact, a serious challenge to Mr Putin, but a carefully calculated ploy to diffuse tension ahead of the vote.
Mr Prokhorov was extremely evasive about his political programme yesterday, and refused to confirm whether he would appear at the next mass opposition rally, planned for 24 December, or whether he was willing to work with radical opposition figures.
Bizarrely, the announcement also comes just a few days after Mr Prokhorov wrote on his blog that he believed there was no real chance of opposing Mr Putin. "The majority of our people think the elections were unfair," he wrote. "But whether they like it or not, Putin is so far the only figure who can manage this inefficient state machine."
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Prokhorov is one of the best-known oligarchs, making his fortune first in finance and then as the chairman of metals giant Norilsk Nickel. He now runs investment vehicle Onexim Group. Last year, he acquired the New Jersey Nets basketball team. Prokhorov's exploits as Russia's most eligible bachelor are the stuff of legend. He was arrested in 2007 in the French ski resort of Courchevel after alllegations of acquiring prostitutes for his guests but was released four days later without charge, and subsequently received an apology from French police.
A lawyer and blogger, he has led campaigns to expose corruption in state-owned companies. He was jailed for 15 days a week ago for leading an unsanctioned rally to protest the results of parliamentary elections. He has refused to say whether he will try to stand for president.
A writer, dissident and radical nationalist, he leads the National Bolshevik party, which is in favour of revolution. Has a devoted band of followers but minimal public support. Says he will stand for president but is unlikely to make it onto the ballot.
A former world chess champion, he became an outspoken critic of Putin's Russia, but enjoys minimal support among Russians at large. He tried to stand against Putin in 2008 but did not get on the ballot, and he has not put in an appearance at the protests that have sprung up in the past week.
A veteran campaigner, the Communist Party leader still draws much support from Russia's pensioners, many of whom have seen little of the wealth of the Putin era and still remember the Soviet Union fondly. He came very close to defeating Boris Yeltsin in 1996 but now is unlikely to win more than 15 per cent of the vote.