MOSCOW — Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's announcement this week that he plans to take on Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency next year certainly came as a surprise. Ever since the nickel tycoon and New Jersey Nets owner abandoned the leadership of a Kremlin-sanctioned liberal opposition party in September, departing in a sulk and making almost unheard-of public criticism of Vladislav Surkov, one of the Kremlin's most feared spin doctors, he has been nearly invisible -- or at least as invisible as a 6-foot-8-inch billionaire playboy can be.
Then, out of nowhere, this: "I have made a decision, and it is perhaps the most serious decision of my life," he said to a room of journalists at the Interfax news agency in central Moscow on the afternoon of Monday, Dec. 12. "I am going to stand in the presidential elections."
Our collective jaw dropped, briefly. Over the past 10 days, a lot has changed in Russia. Saturday's huge protests against vote-rigging in Dec. 4's parliamentary elections that filled Moscow's Bolotnaya Square were an unprecedented show of defiance to Putin's authority -- and a moment after which the country's politics will never be quite the same. This is certainly not the cusp of revolution, however, and the last oligarch to play around with politics in Putin's Russia ended up in a Siberian prison. Has enough really changed that the third-richest man in the country is prepared to risk his $18 billion fortune in a fight with Putin that he has little real chance of winning?
The short answer? No. "After the demonstration on Bolotnaya Square, when it became clear that the urban educated class has turned against the authorities and isn't hiding its position, the Kremlin decided to put Prokhorov forward to neutralize this protest energy," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a former Kremlin advisor who heads the for the National Strategy Institute in Moscow, in an interview with the Russian website Gazeta.ru.
The idea that Prokhorov just sensed a new political atmosphere brewing and went charging in with a genuine presidential bid seems even more unlikely when you consider how he behaved at the news conference at which he announced his candidacy. If he were really going to take on one of the world's most vindictive politicians unsanctioned, one would imagine he'd be in it to win it. There should have been penetrating criticism of Putin's legacy, a searing attack on his style, and an rousing argument that popular opinion is slowly turning and that he, Mikhail Dmitrievich Prokhorov, is the man to push it along quicker than anyone has dreamed possible -- the one man to finally rid the Russian people of their emperor.
Instead, Prokhorov refused to say whether he agreed with the rhetoric of the protest movement or whether he would appear before the next major opposition rally, scheduled for Dec. 24. He refused to even put forward the slightest hint about the presidential manifesto on which he planned to run. For someone who had just taken the self-declared most important decision of his life, he sounded like a man without a clue about what he stands for -- or, more likely, a man waiting for instructions.
How else can the bizarre statement that he would not give any interviews for another month be explained? It's hardly the most conventional move for a presidential candidate entering the race less than three months before the vote and with an unclear manifesto. Most tellingly, aside from a few platitudes about the need for change, Prokhorov did not offer a single meaningful criticism of Putin.
With the growing protest mood and slipping ratings for Putin, the Kremlin may well have thought that it needed to give March 4's presidential election a more convincing veneer of legitimacy. Prokhorov will scoop up some votes of the up-and-coming middle class, but there's little danger of him coming close to Putin, as the majority of Russians still despise the oligarchs. The Prokhorov gambit, in all probability, is the latest brainchild of Surkov, the powerful Kremlin spin doctor whom Prokhorov criticized last fall. Over the past decade, Surkov, as the president's chief of staff and chief ideologue, has been tasked with creating and overseeing what has been described by critics and even Kremlin officials themselves as a "managed democracy."