MOSCOW – From the crowd that gathered on Jan. 13 at Moscow's Central Telegraph building, just up the block from the Kremlin, you would think someone was handing out envelopes of cash. There were pensioners, housewives, college students, and school teachers packing into the entryway and spilling out onto the street, all craning to get a look at the narrow head that stuck up above the throng. Even from the back of the crowd you could see it -- the bobbing noggin of the 6 foot, 8 inch, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who was there to open a campaign office as part of his race for the Russian presidency.
The strange part was that he seemed to be having fun interacting with voters, listening to their lamentations, letting them pinch the fabric of his coat. But here's the really strange part: Everyone there, except for most of the journalists, really believed he could win.
The narrative in the press so far (except in Russia's state-run media) has labeled Prokhorov a Kremlin puppet, an assumption based mostly on experience. Candidates in Russian presidential elections going back to 2000, when Vladimir Putin first became boss, have pretty much all belonged to the so-called "constructive" (read: token) opposition. These are men like the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the sideshow nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who have run and lost in almost every presidential race since the fall of the Soviet Union, each time with a little less heart. (They both sat out in 2004, when Putin's popularity peaked at well above 70 percent.) Now both in their late 60s, they don't campaign too hard anymore, at least not in the whistle-stop sense of the word, and the running joke about them has been the same among voters for a decade: "Comrade Zyuganov (or Herr Zhirinovsky), you have won the presidency! What is your first decree?"
"Um. Um. I decree that all presidential powers should immediately be transferred to Putin."
Candidates with a more independent pedigree, such as Grigory Yavlinksy, the head of the liberal Yabloko party, are usually kept out of the race. And sure enough, the Central Election Commission denied Yavlinsky registration last month, claiming he had forged a quarter of the 2 million signatures needed to get on the ballot. That left the dynamic duo of Zyuganov and Zhirinovsky running alongside the other leader of the constructive opposition, Sergei Mironov, who gets about as much traction claiming independence as does Putin's black Labrador. When he ran against Putin in 2004, Mironov openly supported the candidacy of his rival, and when Putin's second term in office was running out in 2008, Mironov helpfully proposed changing the constitution to allow his old friend to stay for four more years.
So what about Prokhorov? He is, at 46, by far the youngest candidate, lives the life of a jet-setting bachelor, does not belong to any political party, has never held office, and has an estimated fortune of $18 billion. He even owns an NBA team, the New Jersey Nets, making it hard to believe that he can be bought with a suitcase full of cash. As the cynic's wisdom goes these days, he could simply be after the good graces of Putin's Kremlin, which could grant him more nickel and gold mines -- the sources of most of his wealth. He could also be after a senior position in government that would allow him to lobby his interests. But whatever his motivations, Russia's opposition leaders, both constructive and unconstructive, are convinced that Prokhorov is a stooge. "He is in cahoots with Putin in these elections, there is no doubt about that," says Boris Nemtsov, one of Prokhorov's close personal friends and a leader of the popular opposition movement. "Prokhorov is tied in with the government at every stitch, like any big businessman in Russia. So Putin has every ability to grab him by the horns and twist."