Russian tycoon to challenge Putin party

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Tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's second richest man, offered Monday to lead a party that would aim to challenge the grip on power of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party.

In the first foray into politics by a top businessman since the imprisonment of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Prokhorov said he was ready to lead and revamp the Right Cause, until now a small pro-business party.

Prokhorov, who has a reported fortune of $22.7 billion, said he wanted the party to come second in December's parliamentary elections to the dominant United Russia, whose overall leader is Putin.

Right Cause has called for President Dmitry Medvedev to stay for a second term in the Kremlin and is seen as a strong supporter of the president at a time when speculation is mounting that Putin wants a return to the presidency.

Parliamentary polls, expected to give a landslide victory to United Russia, are seen as a dress rehearsal for March presidential polls in which both Putin and Medvedev have not ruled out running.

"As far as the party's nearest future is concerned, my goal is to get a second place in this year's parliamentary elections," Prokhorov told the Interfax news agency.

"I saw that my opponents speak in slogans without proposing anything constructive in return."

Medvedev on Friday expressed unease at Putin's decade-old domination of politics, criticising an "over-concentration of power" in Russia.

The Kremlin declined to comment but on Wednesday Medvedev is expected to hold a news conference at Skolkovo, site of a proposed high-tech business park and the hub of his plan to modernise Russia.

If Prokhorov is elected the leader of the Right Cause, it would mark the first time a top Russian tycoon enters big-time politics since the imprisonment of Khodorkovsky, the former head of the now disbanded Yukos oil giant, in 2003.

His supporters have always insisted this was punishment for daring to support opposition to Putin.

Prokhorov's agreement to head the Right Cause is a major coup for a marginalised party that has until now struggled to enlist heavyweight charismatic leaders in its ranks.

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

It has been jointly led by liberals Leonid Gozman and Georgy Bovt who have next to no national profile in contrast to Prokhorov, known for his height of two metres (over six feet) and a slew of business achievements.

Some observers have said that the Kremlin has struggled to raise the profile of the Right Cause, inviting several prominent figures like Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin and Putin's influential deputy Igor Shuvalov to head the party.

The two are reported to have declined the invitation.

Earlier Monday mass-circulation newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda published excerpts of Prokhorov's letter to his key colleagues saying he had been encouraged to enter politics by his friends and sister.

"If each of us having an opportunity and a desire to live in Russia does not try to change something then nothing will ever change," he said in the letter.

Speaking to AFP, Gozman declined to discuss the party's negotiations with prominent officials but expressed hope the move would help shake the Putin party's grip on power.

"The country is heading for the abyss," he said."Today the Russian elite is in servitude to the United Russia party."

Described as Russia's most eligible bachelor, Prokhorov, 46, owns US National Basketball Association team New Jersey Nets and his business interests range from mining and metals to eco-friendly automobiles.

© 2011 AFP

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