Vladimir Putin suggested yesterday that when he returns to the Kremlin in May he may offer the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov a position in his government.
Mr Prokhorov stood as an independent against Mr Putin in Sunday's presidential election, on a liberal pro-business platform, and received about 8 per cent of the vote.
The billionaire former industrialist, who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team and is known for his playboy lifestyle, has faced accusations that his entry into politics was a Kremlin ploy all along, to provide a reliable outlet for the discontent that has been visible at a number of recent street protests.
"Mikhail Dmitrievich [Prokhorov] is a serious person, a good businessman and, in principle, he could be useful in the government if he decides he wants to," Mr Putin said.
Mr Prokhorov, 46, had earlier ruled out joining the government, saying he wanted to form his own liberal political party. But he met Mr Putin on Monday and, unlike other members of the opposition, has not called the election result into question.
Mr Putin said that in the coming days he would get together with the outgoing President, Dmitry Medvedev, and discuss changes in the government. Mr Medvedev has been promised the Prime Minister's role by Mr Putin, in a game of musical chairs, but many analysts suspect that his appointment will be only short-term and he could be swept aside for someone like Mr Prokhorov.
Since winning more than 63 per cent of the vote in Sunday's disputed poll, Mr Putin has blasted the more radical wing of the opposition, and shown that unauthorised protests would not be tolerated. When demonstrators said they would occupy a central Moscow square after a rally on Monday night, riot police swiftly moved in and detained 250 people. But if Mr Prokhorov is offered the Prime Minister's job or another high-ranking role by Mr Putin, it would show he is also willing to make some concessions to the increasing protest mood in urban centres. In Moscow, 20 per cent of voters backed Mr Prokhorov.
Some opposition leaders have said they are willing to work with him but others claim he has never been a real politician. "Prokhorov has been a Kremlin project since the start of his candidacy," said Sergei Mitrokhin, chairman of the liberal Yabloko party, whose own candidate Grigory Yavlinsky was struck off the ballot. "[Prokhorov] was put on the ballot by Putin because he is loyal, easily manipulated, and is convenient for the Kremlin. He has now fulfilled his task perfectly."
On Monday evening, Mr Prokhorov addressed the protest rally and promised to set up a new party that would answer the demands of dissatisfied urban elites, but was more restrained than most other speakers.
As of yesterday evening, he had not responded to Mr Putin's offer.