Multi-tasking Russian oligarch takes on politics

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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 Mikhail Prokhorov want?

But Prokhorov has now taken on the leadership of a pro-reform party and become the first major businessman to enter the murky world of Russian politics since the now jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky.

Prokhorov aims to help the Pravoe Delo (Just Cause) party win enough of the vote to gain entry to the Russian lower house of parliament, the State Duma, in December polls and pursue a pro-liberal agenda.

His leadership marks a new direction for the fitness-mad businessman whose main interests outside of business have until now been kickboxing, running and skiing.

Sceptics have sniped that his move may not be as bold as it seems, given the party appears to have the full approval of the Kremlin despite its nominal status as an opposition faction.

But Prokhorov, 46, whose Onexim holding group has interests in industries ranging from mining to media to new technologies, has insisted that the country is in need of radical change.

"The model of management (of Russia) which had an effect for the last 10 years has simply exhausted itself," he said at the Saint Petersburg Economic Forum this month. "This is normal. The world is changing fast."

Prokhorov pinpointed improving Russia's dire labour productivity rates as the key for progress in the country. "This is the one condition for ensuring the wellbeing of our citizens.

Underlining his liberal credentials, he has also been one of few high-profile figures in Russia to criticise the continued imprisonment of Khodorkovsy, who last December was handed a new jail sentence for financial crimes.

"As a person, I express deep sorrow that such trials happen in this country," he told Moscow Echo radio.

But several members of the Russian establishment have also shown signs of support for Pravoe Delo, including Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov.

According to Russian media reports, Prokhorov agreed his decision to lead the party in private meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Its programme of modernisation is suspiciously reminiscent of Medvedev's own policies and the Russian head of state has even been cited as a possible future leader of the party.

Standing at over two metres tall, Prokhorov has persued a dizzying sphere of interests over the last years.

He acquired NBA basketball side New Jersey Nets last year and in 2012 is to start mass producing Russia's first hybrid car, the strikingly named Yo-mobile, a design that has been personally blessed by Putin.

Prokhorov is the head of the Russian Biathlon Union, triggering massive controversy among fans of the prestigious winter sport when he fired national team coach Anatoly Khovantsev in the middle of a relay race this year.

In 2007, Prokhorov was arrested by French police on suspicion of organising a prostitution ring at the Alpine ski resort of Courchevel. The case was dismissed in 2009 and this year he was awarded France's top honour, the Legion d'honneur.

So far avoiding marriage -- which has ended in costly divorce for some of his fellow oligarchs -- Prokhorov is regularly snapped at Russia's glitziest parties.

In an odd development seen by some as a warning not to take criticism of the authorities too far, officials in a Siberian region announced last week they were suing him for tens of millions of dollars in unpaid taxes.

Prokhorov is registered in the tiny Siberian village of Eruda, instantly making him by far the biggest source of taxation revenue in its massive region of Krasnoyarsk.

© 2011 AFP

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