Billionaire politician quits party, lashes Kremlin

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Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov on Thursday resigned from the post of leader of a Kremlin-linked party and launched an unprecedented attack on President Dmitry Medvedev's top strategist, accusing him of stifling debate.

Prokhorov, who until now headed the small Pravoye Delo (Right Cause) party, said he would not participate in December parliamentary polls and pledged to establish his own movement.

"I am calling on those who are not indifferent about our country to join forces, not to quit politics, create a new political movement and win genuine elections," Prokhorov said.

He said he was not afraid of repeating the fate of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky who supporters say was arrested in 2003 for daring to challenge the Kremlin.

"Risk is part of my life," he said later, speaking on popular Echo of Moscow radio.

Prokhorov's resignation ends the 46-year-old businessman's three-month stint at the party's helm after he had pledged to challenge the dominance of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia.

In June, the owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets basketball team ranked Russia's third richest man by Forbes magazine with a fortune of $18 billion, made a splash on Russia's lethargic political scene by winning the party's leadership at a congress.

Two days later Prokhorov met with Medvedev in a sign analysts interpreted as the Kremlin's tacit support of the party.

The move marked the first foray into politics by a top businessman since the 2003 arrest of Khodorkovsky who had financed opposition parties prior to his imprisonment.

Analysts have said Prokhorov could not have assumed the party leadership without the support of the Kremlin, which stands to benefit from a semblance of political competition during polls.

Analysts said the Kremlin had expected Prokhorov, who owns a stake in world's biggest aluminum producer United Company Rusal, to conform to existing rules of the game but might have underestimated his ambitions.

Prokhorov, who has little political experience, had said he could see himself as prime minister and would consider standing for president.

During a hastily called press-conference on Wednesday, the billionaire accused one top Kremlin official, Radiy Khabirov, of conspiring to boot him out of the party. On Thursday, he ramped up his criticism by lashing Khabirov's boss Vladislav Surkov.

"There is a puppeteer who has long ago privatised the political system, puts pressure on media and misinforms the country's leadership," he said at a party meeting.

"His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov, first deputy chief of staff," Prokhorov said.

"I will do everything I can to get him fired," said the businessman to cries of "Bravo" from the audience.

Surkov is considered one of the most influential Kremlin officials, who is credited with coining the term "sovereign democracy" to describe Russia'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.

Prokhorov carefully avoided any criticism of Medvedev and Putin and said he would seek to meet with Russia's ruling duo.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated Putin had no immediate plans to meet with the tycoon. Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalia Timakova declined comment.

The Interfax news agency quoted an unidentified Kremlin official as sniping that "Prokhorov confused managing a private company with political work and a party convention with a corporate event where female artists for hire perform."

Prokhorov's opponents organised an alternative party convention and voted to dismiss Prokhorov from the top post.

Running heavily-edited footage from both meetings, Russian state-controlled television portrayed Prokhorov's resignation as an internal party squabble and excised all criticism concerning the Kremlin.

"If he starts a genuine political fight against the regime then the threat of following in Khodorkovsky's footsteps will loom large," former prime minister turned opposition politician Mikhail Kasyanov said.

© 2011 AFP

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