Tycoon Prokhorov goes to war against Kremlin spin doctor

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Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov on Thursday resigned from the post of leader of a pro-reform party and launched an unprecedented attack on Kremlin's top spin doctor, accusing him of stifling debate.

Prokhorov, who was until now the leader of small Pravoye Delo (Right Cause) party, pledged to establish his own movement, saying 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.

Prokhorov carefully avoided any criticism of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, instead taking aim at their close associate.

"There is a puppeteer who has long ago privatised the political system, puts pressure on media and misinforms the country's leadership," the charismatic owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets basketball team told a party meeting.

"His name is Vladislav Yuryevich Surkov, first deputy chief of staff," Prokhorov said to cries of "Bravo" from the audience.

"I will do everything I can to get him fired," said the businessman, ranked Russia's third richest man by Forbes magazine with a fortune of $18 billion.

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 for December parliamentary polls.

Such lacerating critique of the Kremlin was so startling in a country where top businesspeople and parties have for years toed the Kremlin line that some suggested the attack was stage-managed by the Kremlin to allow Prokhorov to win political points ahead of the polls.

Prokhorov said he would not take the party into the parliamentary elections because he was resigning.

"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," he said.

"Welcome to real, honest politics."

Observers said however that he would have to either quit politics for good or accept Kremlin rules of the game.

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

Several top culture figures including pop diva Alla Pugachyova and film director Pavel Lungin turned up at the meeting to support the businessman.

Prokhorov's opponents organised an alternative party convention at a different location where they 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 officials.

On Wednesday, Prokhorov hastily called a press conference during which he accused Surkov's subordinate Radiy Khabirov of orchestrating a "hostile takeover" of Pravoye Delo on the first day of the party's convention the same day.

A Kremlin official dismissed Prokhorov's Wednesday statements as "hysterics".

In June, Prokhorov made a splash on Russia's lethargic political scene by winning the party's leadership at a congress.

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 tacit support of the Kremlin, which stands to benefit from a semblance of political competition ahead of the parliamentary polls and a presidential vote three months later.

They said the Kremlin had expected Prokhorov to conform to existing rules of the game but might have underestimated his ambitions.

© 2011 AFP

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