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Mikhail Prokhorov is seen by some as a Kremlin stooge (photo: dpa)

Russia presidential elections: Mikhail Prokhorov - an illusion of opposition?

GIS's Russia election mini series continues with an analysis of the individuals touted to take on Vladimir Putin in the March 2012 presidential election. Day 3 looks at the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov - and considers whether he is a puppet rebelling against his puppet master, Prime Minister Putin, or a smoke screen to create an illusion of genuine opposition.

MIKHAIL Prokhorov is the third richest man in Russia, with an estimated fortune of US$18 billion.

In May 2011 he joined and sunk US$16million of his own money into the Kremlin-backed liberal Right Cause party. In September he left in anger, following conflicts with United Russia, Prime Minister Putin’s party of power.

More likely, this is yet another backroom deal with the Kremlin, aimed at providing at least an air of legitimacy to Mr Putin’s anticipated victory

Puppet Kremlin party

Echoing what many had suspected, he alleged that Right Cause was no more than a 'puppet Kremlin party' micromanaged by a 'puppet master'.

Deprived of its colourful leader, Right Cause gained no more than 0.6 per cent of the votes in the December 4, 2011, election to the State Duma.

On Monday, December 12, in the wake of the large opposition rally on Moscow’s Bolotnaya Square, Mr Prokhorov called a press conference and stunned even seasoned reporters by announcing that he had made 'probably the most serious decision' of his life. He would run against Mr. Putin in the March, 2012, presidential election.

A few days later he upped the ante by announcing that his first decision as president 'would be humane'. He would pardon the jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the former oligarch who had challenged Mr Putin and paid for his effrontery with his freedom.

Economic catastrophe

In a television talk show on Sunday, December 18, Mr Prokhorov elaborated on his image by saying he categorically disagreed with Mr Putin’s economic policy, which inevitably would lead to an 'economic catastrophe'.

If this is indeed a serious challenge, Mr Prokhorov had better make sure that he wins. Mr Khodorkovsky after all seems destined to remain incarcerated for life for having stood up to Mr Putin.

More likely, this is yet another backroom deal with the Kremlin, aimed at providing at least an air of legitimacy to Mr Putin’s anticipated victory.

It is a Kremlin gamble that may backfire. Allowing an insider to pose as a liberal alternative may deflect attention away from the true liberals. But it may equally well raise ambitions within the middle class, and thus exacerbate the challenge to the regime.

Prokhorov

  • Age: 46 Height: 203cm (6ft 8ins)
  • Famous in Russia as a playboy, with the tabloid nickname 'the Holiday Man'
  • Majority owner of US professional basketball team New Jersey Nets
  • Owns a private investment fund, co-owns Russia's largest gold producer Polyus Gold, as well as Snob, a Russian-language magazine
  • Rated as Russia's third richest man with fortune of US$18bn
  • In May, 2011, he joined the pro-business Right Cause party. Elected leader in June, 2011. In September, 2011, he resigned
  • In December, 2011, after the legislative elections, Prokhorov announced he would contest the 2012 presidential election against Vladimir Putin as an independent
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