'Game over': Clouds gather for tycoon who took on Kremlin
Just days ago, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was the darling of the Russian leadership as the new head of a liberal Kremlin-backed party, given acres of television coverage and hobnobbing with the ruling tandem.
On Friday, he and his close political associate became the target of a new muckraking documentary shown on prime-time state-controlled television.
The expose capped Prokhorov's three-month stint at the helm of a small pro-reform party, Pravoe Delo (Right Cause) and came a day after the free-wheeling industrialist called Kremlin's top strategist a "puppeteer" and accused him of stifling debate.
At a party meeting on Thursday, Prokhorov said he was quitting and would not lead Pravoe Delo into December parliamentary polls because he was not ready to be a puppet of President Dmitry Medvedev's top spin doctor Vladislav Surkov.
"Game over," Prokhorov declared in a bitter blog entry.
He warned that he expected "problems at the least in the public arena," for himself and his followers.
"They will waste (us) cruelly and uncompromisingly. I am ready for this," he said, breaking into slang.
The billionaire, listed as Russia's third richest with a fortune of $18 billion by Forbes magazine, has interests ranging from mining to metals to eco-friendly cars and was chiefly known as a patron of sport and arts before his sudden venture into politics this summer.
He took over the party leadership on June 25 in a fanfare of publicity, clearly enjoying support from Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who stood to benefit from a pliant figure heading a nominally opposition movement with no grassroots backing.
Two days after Prokhorov joined the party, Medvedev received him at his residence outside Moscow.
But his startling public attack and a pledge to have Surkov fired led to a spectacular fall from grace.
Surkov is considered one of the most influential Russian officials, who is credited with coining the term "sovereign democracy" to describe the country's political system.
He has worked with both Medvedev and his predecessor in the Kremlin, Putin, and is in charge of the ongoing political campaign for December parliamentary polls.
While Prokhorov slammed Surkov for orchestrating his downfall, observers noted he did not go so far as to criticise the ruling tandem, despite suggesting they had given Surkov carte blanche.
Surkov "could not have single-handedly privatised the entire political system without the support, approval and direct orders of the country's leadership," opposition Novaya Gazeta said.
"The Kremlin laid bare its methods showing how democracy works."
A Kremlin source dismissed Prokhorov's accusations as "hysterics."
Prokhorov, who has stakes in Russia's biggest gold producer Polyus Gold and world's biggest aluminum producer United Company Rusal, has much to lose.
Many believe his fate could match that of jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, formerly Russia's richest man, if he does not back down.
Despite his vows to establish his own movement, Prokhorov's political future looks unclear.
The owner of US National Basketball Association team New Jersey Nets cancelled a Saturday meeting with young supporters, his first scheduled appearance since his resignation.
"Circumstances have changed," an aide to Prokhorov told AFP.
The aide spoke after Russian television at peak-time aired a hastily-put together documentary smearing Prokhorov's ally, Yevgeny Roizman, a controversial former convict who runs a cold-turkey rehabilitation programme for drug addicts.
"By taking Roizman under his wing, Prokhorov committed a fatal error," the programme's voiceover said. Its title punned on his party's name: "Not the Right Cause."
The show on NTV channel, controlled by state gas giant Gazprom, aired footage of Roizman talking of his links with the criminal underworld and testimony of handcuffing and chaining of addicts in his rehabilitation centre.
The tactic was typical of state-controlled media's treatment of political outcasts. The same channel previously aired a series of muck-raking documentaries about Moscow mayor Yury Luzhkov ahead of his sacking by Medvedev.
"Despite 20 years in business, strangely enough I still had some illusions," Prokhorov said in his blog.
"Yesterday I lost them. That's even a good thing. I suggested changes. The system is not ready."
© 2011 AFP