Russia's third richest man to challenge Putin for presidency
Russia's third richest man said yesterday that he would run against Vladimir Putin in next year's presidential election.
The announcement, which Mikhail Prokhorov called the "most serious decision in my life", immediately led to speculation that it was a Kremlin-approved ploy to divert attention from the growing protest movement.
Although Mr Prokhorov, a Russian metals tycoon, avoided criticising Mr Putin, the prime minister, he appealed to the thousands who have protested against parliamentary elections widely seen as rigged in favour of the Kremlin-backed party, United Russia.
"I think that society has woken up," said Mr Prokhorov. "The section of the authorities who do not start a dialogue with society will have to go."
The election will be his second attempt to move into politics. Mr Prokhorov, who owns the American NBA basketball team the New Jersey Nets, was ousted from the liberal Right Cause party in September in what he called a plot organised within the Kremlin.
He said he had been preparing for his run at the presidency in the months since his bitter parting.
Presidential candidates have to win two million signatures to run, a difficult and expensive task. Even after that, it is almost impossible to get on the ballot without the Kremlin giving the go-ahead. Mr Prokhorov said that he had not spoken to President Dmitry Medvedev or Mr Putin, nor with Vyacheslav Surkov, the Kremlin political fixer whom he blamed for the failure of the Right Cause project, which was itself started by the Kremlin.
"My plan is to become his boss. I will figure it out from there," he joked.
Opposition leaders immediately criticised his announcement as a cynical strategy to take the steam out of the protests. "Prokhorov's task is agreed with the Kremlin and it is to show himself as the leader of those people who came out on Bolotnaya," wrote Marina Litvinoch, an opposition activist, on her blog, referring to Bolotnaya Square, where up to 50,000 gathered on Saturday.
Just a few days before his announcement, Mr Prokhorov wrote on his blog: "Whether you like it or not, Putin is the only person who can control this ineffective state machine."
Mr Prokhorov made the announcement as Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister and long-time ally of Mr Putin, called for the creation of a liberal party to fill a void in Russian politics exposed by the mass protests.
Mr Kudrin, who was ousted earlier this year by Mr Medvedev, said that if a liberal party gained support, it could offer a way for Mr Putin to channel discontent. He also warned that a presidential victory for Mr Putin would be undermined by any failure to address protesters' allegations of fraud.
Mr Prokhorov would have little chance of beating Mr Putin even in a fair election because of the Russian population's suspicion of oligarchs.
However, his entry would make a second-round vote more likely, said opposition activist Vladimir Milov.
Mr Kudrin is seeking to unite liberal and middle-class voters who vented frustration with Mr Putin's political dominance by taking to the streets in protest. Mr Kudrin said he wanted to help create a liberal party to fill a void exposed by Russia's December 4 parliamentary vote, which set off mass protests over alleged fraud. (© Daily Telegraph, London)