Reporting from Vlasovo, Russia —
It was not just another day on Alexei Burkov's little dairy farm west of Moscow.
In a country where political campaigns are conducted with scripted television events and carefully orchestrated public appearances, a presidential candidate was coming to share a hearty winter lunch of homemade dumplings, pork chops, herb-seasoned cheeses and a raspberry drink.
To the delight of half a dozen photographers, Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team, visited Burkov's barn and awkwardly touched the horn of one of his cows. The candidate talked of high taxes, out-of-control bureaucracy and corruption.
Burkov, a mechanical engineer by education, didn't explicitly promise his vote. But he did say that he certainly wouldn't vote for any of the four other candidates. That includes Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who already has served eight years as president and nearly four now as premier, and hopes that the election Sunday will put him on track for two new six-year terms as president.
Although Putin's popularity has been falling, most observers expect him to win in the first round. Prokhorov, currently thought to be running behind Putin and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, is the only candidate conducting a Western-style campaign with professional staff, travel to frequent campaign events, and new ideas posted daily on his website. Giant posters in Moscow and other large cities proclaim: "The new president — the new Russia."
Some analysts doubt that Prokhorov is truly independent, suspecting he is in cahoots with Putin. Prokhorov dismisses the speculation and says he hopes to overtake Zyuganov in the campaign's closing days, forcing Putin into a runoff.
"Russia is a country of miracles," he said. "If I face Putin in the second round, everything becomes possible!"
Burkov seemed to be impressed.
"The state now treats all of us businessmen and farmers as if we are enemies and criminals, and that should be changed," he said. "We need a man at the helm of the country who can think in terms of development the way Prokhorov talks and thinks."
Prokhorov, whose visit Monday was arranged by the candidate's advance team, departed Burkov's four snow-covered acres 16 miles from Moscow with a bit of apparently unscripted black humor, suggesting that the farmer would be punished for hosting him: "Now after my departure you can say goodbye to your cows, pigs, rabbits and chickens."
The farmer brushed it off. "In my line of business in Russia, I have seen so much that nothing can scare me anymore," he said.
Prokhorov, a 46-year-old metals tycoon, also met recently with veterans of Russia's security services, a group of burly men with broken ears, scarred faces and chests full of medals.
Speaking shortly after a major campaign speech by Putin last week in which the prime minister called upon Russians to be willing to die to protect the motherland, Prokhorov said, "Nobody is going to attack a strong country with nuclear weapons and a strong army."
"We need to learn to look for friends rather than create enemies," he added, and the veterans nodded.
After that meeting he dashed for the airport and flew across the country to Krasnoyarsk in Siberia.
Prokhorov has visited cities and towns across the nation, attended dozens of meetings with all kinds of audiences — but mostly young and middle-class people.
Prokhorov promises if elected to free jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, open classified communist-era archives, dissolve parliament and urgently hold new parliamentary elections, and reverse the decision to make the presidential term six years instead of four.
He also pledges sweeping political and economic reforms such as splitting Gazprom, the giant natural gas monopoly, into several competing companies; reducing the bureaucratic corps by 30%; making the European Union an economic partner; and opening Russia much more widely to foreign businesses.
Just days before the election, Putin's foes and political analysts are far from unanimous on what to make of Prokhorov. Mikhail Delyagin, chairman of the Institute of Globalization Studies, said Prokhorov is little more than a Kremlin shill.
"The Kremlin needs the tycoon to enliven the campaign and attract young people to the vote to increase the turnout, which makes it easier to carry out falsifications assuring Putin's victory in the first round," Delyagin said.
Garry Kasparov, an opposition leader who is a former world chess champion, agreed.
"I don't doubt for a second that Prokhorov is a Kremlin project, and he is the worst of the four because of his charisma," Kasparov said.
However, Prokhorov has won the support of longtime London-based dissident Vladimir Bukovsky. Writing in his blog, Bukovsky said he didn't believe Prokhorov was a creation of the Kremlin.
"If he has broken up with the Kremlin now, what is so bad if at least one member of the opposition has some good money he is ready to spend on the common cause?" Bukovsky wrote.