Multi-tasking oligarch Prokhorov takes on Kremlin

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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.

Life is good for Russia's third-richest man Mikhail Prokhorov.

Or was -- until Thursday when he made a powerful enemy calling Kremlin's top ideologue Vladislav Surkov a "puppeteer" and publicly accusing him of stifling political debate and misleading the country's leadership.

The visceral attack on a close associate of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin immediately drew comparisons with Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was arrested in 2003 in what his supporters see as a Kremlin vendetta for daring to support the opposition.

"I am not afraid," he said on popular Echo of Moscow radio. "When I started business, I was told 'What are you doing?' I am used to it."

Prokhorov owns US National Basketball Association team New Jersey Nets and his business interests range from mining and metals to eco-friendly automobiles.

Standing at over two metres tall, Prokhorov made a dramatic entry into Russia's murky political scene with eye-catching posters and backing from a pop diva this summer.

In June the 46-year-old businessman, who has pursued a dizzying sphere of interests, took on the leadership of a pro-reform party, Pravoye Delo (Just Cause), announcing plans to gain entry to parliament in December polls and challenge the dominance of Putin's ruling United Russia party.

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

Sceptics sniped that his move was not as bold as it seemed, since the party could not have appeared without the full approval of the Kremlin despite its nominal status as an opposition faction.

The Right Cause was set up in 2008 with a modernising, pro-business agenda but more radical liberals had kept their distance from it, seeing it as too close to the Kremlin.

Prokhorov's agenda chimed with Medvedev's modernisation drive, and both men are fans of new media, writing blogs and Twitter posts.

Suddenly, Prokhorov became the most talked about element of a previously dully predictable parliamentary election.

The gangling businessman whose Onexim holding group has interests ranging from mining to media to new technologies, insisted that Russia needed radical change to halt a potentially terminal decline.

He slammed state control of industry dominated by huge monopolists and blamed Russia's economic "isolationism" for its failure to join the World Trade Organisation.

He called for the return of democratic elections for regional governors -- scrapped under Putin.

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

He even announced he would consider standing for president -- in a Twitter post.

Prokhorov has to be acting "on government orders", the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev said last month, suggesting the Kremlin stood to benefit from a semblance of political competition.

On Thursday, Prokhorov however stunned Russian political establishment by announcing he would not lead the party in parliamentary elections because he was quitting and establishing a genuinely independent party.

While publicly lashing Surkov for his efforts to control the country's political scene, Prokhorov carefully avoided any criticism of Russia's ruling duo.

"I am calling on those who are not indifferent about our country to join forces, not to quit politics, get Surkov fired, create a new political movement and win genuine elections," Prokhorov told his allies at a party convention.

In the only previous hint of scandal, Prokhorov hit the headlines in 2007 when he 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.

© 2011 AFP

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