Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov at a car show in Moscow last year.… (Natalia Kolesnikova, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Moscow — The Russian billionaire who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team announced he would challenge Vladimir Putin for the presidency in March, a sign of how quickly the political landscape has shifted since parliamentary elections widely criticized as having been rigged.
A public outcry against results of the Dec. 4 vote has presented Putin, long Russia's strongest leader, with a sudden problem: The protest by tens of thousands of people in Moscow on Saturday was the largest demonstration in the city since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago.
Although tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov has in the past been sharply critical of the Kremlin, he had faded from the scene until Monday. Even after his announcement, there were widespread doubts whether he intended to risk Putin's ire, or he was merely a player in an effort to prevent the discontent from jelling into an organized political movement.
In the days since the vote, Putin has distanced himself from the ruling United Russia party, which the protesters decry as a "party of swindlers and thieves." Officials have said they are willing to review some election results. And on Monday, even as Prokhorov announced his candidacy, officials also began punishing provincial leaders who failed to deliver enough votes.
Together, the moves suggested the outlines of a plan to take the energy out of the protest movement, and ensure nothing stands in the way of Putin, who currently is prime minister, from regaining the office he left four years ago because of term limits.
Prokhorov, 46, who is worth an estimated $18 billion, said at a news conference that running for president "probably is the most important decision in my life."
He said he would appeal for support from the middle class, who formed the majority of those protesting the election results. Prokhorov gave few details of his campaign program, other than to say that he considered it his civic duty to show people "the way to make our country prosperous and strong," and that he would avoid populism.
Like other Russian oligarchs, Prokhorov made his fortune taking control of state-run enterprises in the volatile 1990s. While others of his class, like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, ran into legal difficulties when they ventured into politics, Prokhorov stuck to business — until he announced in summer that he would lead a comatose pro-business party, the Right Cause, into the parliamentary elections.
He exited just as quickly in September, accusing the Kremlin of meddling in the affairs of political parties and calling Putin's chief strategist, Vladislav Surkov, a "puppet master."
Experts and politicians on both ends of the Russian political spectrum expressed doubts about Prokhorov's motives this time.
"This is nothing but a crafty deception, as they once again resorted to the same old trick aimed at splitting our ranks," Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader, said in an interview.
Nemtsov said he, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and some other prominent opposition leaders intend to boycott the March vote as "a Kremlin farce."
"And the person who is used to make this farce look legitimate is certainly not our candidate," he said.
Nemtsov said the opposition would hold another large rally Dec. 24.
Sergei Markov, a pro-Kremlin political expert, agreed that "the Kremlin needs Prokhorov to legitimize elections."
"The stylish oligarch will certainly make the campaign landscape appear much livelier," said Markov, who is also vice president of the Russian Economics Academy. "At the same time, poor Russian people hate glamour, and for many Prokhorov is an object of resentment."
"When asked if they want to vote for this glamorous symbol of amorality or for Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, people will make the right choice, without doubt," he said.
Markov recalled that not long ago Prokhorov in his personal blog called Putin "the only man who can manage this system."
"Who knows?" Markov said. "When it is all over, Putin may even give him the prime minister's job."
Surkov, in a recent interview with pro-Kremlin author and blogger Sergei Minayev, indicated that Russia needed to give Putin's opponents a voice without upsetting the power structure. Urbanites, who made up the majority of the protesters, already have a voice in opposition media, he said. "But that is understandably not enough. In addition to this communication with the state they also need representation in parliament.
"Disorder grows in closed systems," he said, adding that a vertical power structure "reacts to management problems by a desire to become even more vertical, narrower and more primitive."
Prokhorov said that if elected, he would grant parole to Khodorkovsky, who was convicted and jailed on what are widely regarded as trumped-up charges. Asked whether he was afraid to go to jail, he said he had not done anything illegal.