Multi-tasking oligarch Prokhorov takes on Putin

12th December 2011, Comments 0 comments

He owns a top US basketball team, is described as Russia's most eligible bachelor and enjoys a reported fortune of $18 billion.

What more could Russia's third-richest man want?

The answer, according to metals tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, is the Russian presidency, a prize that until just a week ago seemed destined to fall into strongman Vladimir Putin's hands in March polls.

The 46-year-old globe-trotting businessman, his lanky frame of over two metres (six feet) always held upright with military precision, said he was not taking the decision lightly considering the fate of past politically-ambitious tycoons.

After all, the last billionaire to pose a direct challenge to Putin -- Yukos oil company founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky -- has been sitting in jail since 2003 on fraud and tax evasion conviction that will keep him there until 2016.

"I am not doing anything illegal," Prokhorov said defensively when asked about the Khodorkovsky case.

"I am going in with my head held high and am not afraid."

An often mysterious figure who has flourished thanks to both business and political savvy, Prokhorov has rarely made fatal miscalculations in the past.

His decision to run for president comes amid swelling public anger at the outcome of a contested parliamentary poll, sagging Putin approval ratings, and a growing call for the emergence of a new Kremlin-approved political force.

Some think Prokhorov is only in it to make the presidential vote look competitive, while others feel he may actually succeed in uniting powerful business interests that had suffered from the corruption roiling Russia today.

But he has indisputably offered a fresh political agenda, insisting that Russia needs radical change to halt a potentially terminal decline.

With his Onexim holding group's interests ranging from mining to media to new technologies, Prokhorov has slammed state control of industry and called for the return of elections for regional governors -- scrapped under Putin.

He has also urged closer economic ties with the European Union and for Russia to join the euro, attracting widespread ridicule.

Prokhorov may well be best known in the West as the owner of the NBA New Jersey Nets basketball team, which he is moving to Brooklyn and hoping to make into New York's new sports darling.

His other ambitions include building Russia's first mass-produced hybrid vehicles -- painted outrageous fluorescent colours and branded the Yo-Mobiles -- and helping the biathlon team train for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

He made a dramatic political entry over the summer by taking charge of a liberal Kremlin-backed group called Right Cause, his efforts supported by eye-catching posters and backing from Russia's most-cherished pop diva.

But things spiralled out of control quickly, with Prokhorov resigning from the party by September amid a complex power struggle that the tycoon blamed on a powerful Kremlin aide.

The debacle struck shortly after he voiced ambitions to be appointed prime minister by the next president -- a possibility that neither President Dmitry Medvedev nor Putin could accept at the time.

A few weeks later, Medvedev and Putin announced plans to swap jobs after the March election, and Prokhorov was rarely heard from again.

Some political analysts labelled Prokhorov's presidential announcement as a Kremlin-dictated move scrambled together after massive protests over December 4 elections that the ruling party won amid allegations of fraud.

"When it became clear that the educated urban class is going against the regime, the Kremlin is offering Prokhorov to neutralise the energy of this protest," Stanislav Belkovsky told the new site.

© 2011 AFP

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