Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the richest Russian oligarchs and now head of… (Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Moscow — In a country whose most famous billionaire-slash-politician has languished for years in prison camps, it might seem rash for another tycoon to publicly vow to break the ruling party's monopoly on power and ill conceal his presidential ambitions.
But Mikhail Prokhorov, one of the richest men in Russia, not to mention the owner of the New Jersey Nets, didn't seem haunted by the specter of Mikhail Khodorkovsky when he declared this year that he was abandoning big business to head the comatose Right Cause party and released a party manifesto calling the state "hostile to its own people."
Even more stunning, the party's former zero ratings are on the rise and political commentators are seriously talking about pro-business Right Cause breaking the 7% vote barrier in December elections and making it into the State Duma, the lower house of the parliament.
In today's Russia, where opposition political parties are regularly denied registration and opposition protests are brutally dispersed, some people smell a rat. A Kremlin one.
Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the National Strategy Institute, a Moscow-based think tank, speculated that the Kremlin wanted to create the semblance of political pluralism.
"There is no doubt that Prokhorov readily executes the Kremlin order to fill in the liberal niche in the stagnated Russian political spectrum," he said.
Lilia Shevtsova, a senior researcher with the Moscow Carnegie Center, agreed.
"He has been chosen by the Kremlin to play the role of a clown to make the election period amusing, but he is not a funny clown," she said.
Prokhorov, 46, has a reputation of being a controversial, if not flamboyant, figure who allegedly has ties to the Kremlin and President Dmitry Medvedev's administration, connections that he vehemently denies.
As if to buttress that denial, on Wednesday he fired a group of high-placed party functionaries, suggesting at a hastily organized news conference that they had been plotting to depose him on Kremlin orders.
In 2008, he was elected president of the Russian Biathlon Union, a move impossible without government approval given that the Nordic skiing-marksmanship combo is one of the top sports in Russia. Prokhorov made headlines with his scandalous decision to fire the women's national team coach in the middle of a world championship relay race this year.
Despite his recent claim that he has abandoned his business activities, Prokhorov remains the owner of the Nets and president of his Onexim Group investment fund, his aide Olga Stukalova confirmed.
Prokhorov also continues his larger-than-life activities, holding news conferences, taking part in a charity basketball game and last week meeting with Moscow University students.
Towering over his audience, the 6-foot-8 Prokhorov took questions from dozens of students for more than an hour in the assembly hall of the university's Economics Department.
"I came to find out why a man who has everything wants to take part in this Russian political 'Truman Show,'" Alim Ayubov, a 19-year-old student, said shortly before the meeting. "Our political life, parties and elections are nothing but fiction, but Prokhorov is a smart man and he can't but understand it."
The oligarch-turned-politician began by telling his young listeners how he started back in the 1980s by unloading railroad freight cars. His big break came when he bought Norilsk Nickel, the world's largest nickel and palladium producer, a property "no one was interested in."
The audience, though, seemed far more interested in his curious present than in his glorious self-made-man past.
Prokhorov didn't hesitate to say that he is planning "to put an end to United Russia's monopoly in the State Duma," and went on to say that "the state sees businessmen and ordinary citizens as its competitors in business."
"Tell me of any new young bright politicians who have emerged in Russia in the last five to seven years," he asked the audience, adding after a pause. "No one has, because we have no political competition, which is a huge problem."
Asked whether he plans to run for the presidency someday, Prokhorov said that he is "not a Kremlin dreamer" but conceded that "bad is the soldier who doesn't dream of becoming a general."
"Our primary task is to achieve a good result in the Duma elections," Prokhorov said. "If the party gains a serious percentage close to 15, we will be obligated to nominate a [presidential] candidate."
That puts him on a collision course with either Medvedev or Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, depending on which one runs for the presidency in the March election, a decision expected in the coming weeks.
Prokhorov added that he already knows what he would do once he became president but said he would keep his plans to himself for the time being.
Despite the evident mixed feelings in the audience, the meeting ended with standing applause, autographs given and photos taken.