x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Billionaire NJ Nets owner to challenges Putin for Russian presidency

Mikhail Prokhorov's announcement underlines the extent of the discontent with Vladimir Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years - first as president, then as prime minister.

Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire New York Nets owner, intends to challenge Vladimir Putin for Russian president.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire New York Nets owner, intends to challenge Vladimir Putin for Russian president.

MOSCOW // After a week of surprising challenges to his authority, Vladimir Putin faces a new one from one of Russia's richest and most glamorous figures: the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets says he will run against him in March's presidential election.

The announcement yesterday by Mikhail Prokhorov underlines the extent of the discontent with Mr Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years - first as president, then as prime minister.

It comes on the heels of Saturday's unprecedented nationwide protests against Putin and his party, United Russia. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets to denounce alleged election fraud favouring United Russia in December 4 parliamentary elections.

The fraud and the party's comparatively poor showing in the elections - losing about 20 per cent of its seats, although it retained a narrow majority - galvanised long-marginalised opposition forces to conduct a startling series of demonstrations, including an enormous rally of at least 30,000 in Moscow alone.

In yet another challenge to Mr Putin, his former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said yesterday he was ready to work to form a new party.

At a news conference announcing his candidacy, Mr Prokhorov refrained from criticising Mr Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev, but he said "society is waking up".

"Those authorities who will fail to establish a dialogue with society will have to go," he said.

Mr Medvedev has promised on his Facebook page that the alleged vote fraud will be investigated. But Mr Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, predicted the probe will show that little vote fraud occurred and that it had no effect on the outcome.

Mr Peskov's comment signalled that Mr Putin - who served as Russia's president in 2000-2008 and stepped over to the premiership because of term limits - is holding firm, despite the protests that were the largest in post-Soviet Russia.

It is unclear how effective a challenger Mr Prokhorov might prove to be. His wealth, estimated by Forbes magazine at US$18 billion (Dh66.06bn), and his playboy reputation may turn off voters who resent the gargantuan fortunes compiled by tycoons even as countless Russians struggled through the economic chaos of the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.

The 46-year-old bachelor is known for lavish parties and occasional scandal. He and some guests were arrested at a Christmas party in the French Alpine resort of Courchevel in 2007 for allegedly arranging for prostitutes; but he was soon released without charges.

Mr Prokhorov made his fortune in metals and banking and became majority stakeholder in the NBA with New Jersey Nets, last year. Since then, he has travelled widely to build a global fan base for the team, in the process showing off his towering 6-foot-8 frame and excellent command of English.

Mr Kudrin, 51, lacks Mr Prokhorov's flash, but as finance minister under both Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev, he earned wide respect for his economic acumen. Mr Kudrin was widely credited with softening the blow of the 2008-09 global downturn in Russia with his conservative fiscal policies.

During Mr Putin's presidency, Mr Kudrin set up a rainy-day fund of revenue from Russia's oil exports. The idea angered many in the government who sought higher spending, but it ultimately proved to be an invaluable cushion.

In an interview with the business newspaper Vedomosti, Mr Kudrin said the country needed a new liberal party and "I am to assist" in creating it.

Mr Kudrin was fired in September for saying that he would not serve if Mr Medvedev agreed to step aside, become prime minister and allow Mr Putin, 59, to run for another term. The decision by Mr Medvedev and Mr Putin to effectively swap positions was seen by critics as cynical and antidemocratic, so Mr Kudrin's dismissal could give him a principled aura.

Mr Prokhorov said he hopes to win the support of Russia's growing middle class, which formed the core of Saturday's demonstrations. However, he said he agrees with only some of the anti-Putin and anti-government slogans shouted at rallies. He also did not say whether he plans to attend a follow-up protest in Moscow this month.

He is one of several candidates who have said they will oppose Mr Putin in the presidential election, including Communist chief Gennady Zyuganov, who has finished second in past presidential elections.