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Analysis & Opinion
13.12.11 The Billion-Dollar Man
By Dan Peleschuk

Billionaire tycoon and occasional political player Mikhail Prokhorov announced his candidacy for the Russian presidency, igniting speculation over whether the move is a Kremlin ploy or an independent maneuver. The timing, particularly, is curious: with the Kremlin’s authority at perhaps its weakest point since the late 1990s, largely thanks to last week’s unprecedented wave of public protests, many are wondering whether real politics are returning to Russia, or if it is the ruling party’s last ditch effort to manage a successful presidential election in March.

Prokhorov made his announcement at a hastily-called press conference on Monday, reportedly rousing the room full of journalists and injecting yet another dose of uncertainty into Russian politics, which by all accounts have lost much of their predictability in the past week. Claiming it was “the most important decision of my life,” Prokhorov stopped short of offering a concrete policy platform and remained secretive about his hypothetical choice for prime minister. Instead, he noted that only “ten percent” of his campaign would be devoted to criticism of the Vladimir Putin administration and that his target constituency would be Russia’s ever-expanding middle class. “I think society is waking up, whether we want it to or not,” he told journalists, according to media reports. “That part of the government which does not establish dialogue with society will have to go in the near future. Serious changes are taking place in the world, and a new kind of man is emerging.”

The announcement raised several eyebrows amidst a dizzying and unexpected flurry of activity in Russian politics since the contested December 4 Duma elections. And as many observers struggle to tilt a wide-angle lens over the events, it remains unclear what role Prokhorov’s possible candidacy may play in the unfolding political landscape. On the surface, he has an axe to grind: he suffered a public falling out with the Kremlin after he was removed from his post as leader of the Right Cause party, offering scathing criticism of chief ideologue Vladislav Surkov in the process. It was a scandal that drove Prokhorov into silence for nearly three months and led many observers to mark him as yet another political casualty in Putin’s Russia.

Yet time and again, through one extension or another, Prokhorov has appeared to be the Kremlin’s man. Just last week, as the anti-government protests in downtown Moscow begun to gather steam, he announced his tacit – if somewhat hesitant – support for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in a blog entry: “Like it or not, Putin is still the only one who can somehow manage this inefficient state machine.” What’s more, news of his announcement led the evening reports on state-run television on December 12, a less-than-subtle hint of official approval of his candidacy.

And because the Kremlin has found itself increasingly vulnerable after several days of unsettling street protests, pushing its own authorized pocket opposition candidate might be a smart move. Though authorities have mostly been awkwardly tight-lipped on the past week’s events, Surkov gave a rare interview last week in which he recommended the creation of a new, expansive liberal party to channel the discontent of a frustrated urban middle class.

But the extent of the Kremlin’s continued electoral micromanagement, as well as Prokhorov’s involvement with the ruling establishment, remains uncertain, experts said. Vladimir Pribylovsky, the head of the Panorama Information and Research Center, noted that although Kremlin approval still plays a key role in the process, it may backfire to its own detriment. “If he is officially registered, then it’s a sign that there may be some sort of agreement, either with Surkov or someone else – or perhaps with Putin himself,” Pribylovsky said. “But if he fails to collect this all-important signature, then that may play even more into his genuine popularity among voters.”

Other experts agree about Prokhorov’s potential popularity, but also point to the billionaire’s presidential bid as an honest attempt at electoral competition, perhaps in hopes of gathering up political acumen and marketability for the future. And according to Elena Pozdnyakova, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, Prokhorov’s prospective candidacy – regardless of its links with the Kremlin – may be the only option for those masses that have taken to the streets in discontent.

“The exact people who would vote for Mikhail Prokhorov – that is, the urban middle class, a more active and younger electorate than Vladimir Putin’s – have now been activated,” she said. “And they haven’t seen a candidate who could represent their interests until Prokhorov’s announcement. Voting for the Communist Party or Just Russia [in parliamentary elections] is one thing, a protest vote, but it’s completely different to offer someone for the post of president.”
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