On Monday, Dec. 12, the lanky Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov called a press conference soporifically titled An Analysis of the Political Situation in the Country. It turned out that Prokhorov at 46 the 32nd richest person in the world, according to Forbes had already done the analysis and synthesized a solution. "I'm entering the presidential race," he announced.
The Russian election season is short: by the evening of March 4, the country will know the name of its new President. Except, of course, that the country knows his name already. It's Vladimir Putin. So what exactly has possessed Prokhorov, a man whose holdings include the New Jersey Nets basketball team, to toss his hat into this rigged ring? And, more important, should we care?
Among the Russian voting public, including the newly minted liberal-activist demographic that Prokhorov is trying to court, the answer appears to be a thunderous no. The billionaire is currently polling at about 5%. The opposition's marked lack of enthusiasm for a wealthy and powerful candidate who's saying all the right things is based on one blunt notion: few people here believe that Prokhorov's candidacy can be real.
Prokhorov's first venture into politics, last year, played into the notoriously conspiratorial Russian mind-set. In June the businessman, who made his billions in Kremlin-blessed metals and finance deals, unexpectedly became the head of the opposition Right Cause party. Moscow filled up with billboards bearing Prokhorov's severe likeness. This lasted for about six weeks, after which Prokhorov abruptly quit the party, blaming Kremlin ideologue Vladislav Surkov for interfering in its business.
Many opposition activists and journalists have suggested that the entire thing was a Kremlin gambit gone awry, that Prokhorov's role in Right Cause was to divide the opposition vote and thus help the ruling United Russia party in the parliamentary elections. But, the theory goes, the Kremlin pulled the plug when it discovered that Right Cause was siphoning votes from the United Russia column. That is why the billboards vanished overnight. "Prokhorov is a businessman," a colleague says, which is why he may find politics a challenge. "He thinks an agreement is an agreement. The sides shake hands on something and go off to hammer out the details. He's not used to the political way of things, where the sides shake hands and then stab each other in the back."
Prokhorov understandably denies these rumors, saying to Spiegel Online, "It is my job to prove the opposite to the skeptics who want to tag me with the Kremlin label." But the way he has been managing his presidential campaign does little to counteract his image as a spoiler for Putin. He's uttered nary a critical word about his opponent. Offered a chance to speak at the many opposition rallies that are shaking Moscow these days, Prokhorov chose to briefly mill around in the crowd instead. The man does not appear to be running to win; indeed, it seems that he's barely running at all. So what's the game? Conspiracy theories abound. Is he angling for a big IPO that needs presidential-level clearance? Has he been promised Putin's soon-to-be vacated job of Prime Minister, which would allow Putin's third term to appear inclusive of the "opposition"?
There is another, subtler possible explanation one rooted in Prokhorov's own quirky character. The billionaire is nothing if not stubborn, and from his many interviews, it seems as if his view of his own intelligence is extremely high. One source close to Prokhorov aptly describes his relationship with the Kremlin as "mutually abusive they think they're using him, but he thinks he's using them. In the end, he believes he will outsmart everyone." Seen this way, Prokhorov could well be a short-term team player and a long-term genuine alternative to Putin, choosing to hang around for the President's third term when he is sure to be weakened and see what happens. Prokhorov's platform is probusiness, unabashedly globalist ("Russia needs to stop being an outsider and become the headliner of the civilized world," it reads, with both outsider and headliner in transliterated English), and somewhat Bloombergian in its cranky prescriptivism (he's admirably willing to argue for things like a longer workweek). It's just that his vision for implementing this program appears to have little to do with the election at hand. For now, all we can do is keep watching Mikhail Prokhorov. At just over 200 cm tall and with $18 billion to spend on American sports teams and Russian political campaigns, he'll be hard to ignore.
Idov is the editor in chief of GQ Russia