On paper, Mikhail Prokhorov has everything it takes to give Vladimir Putin a run for his money. At 46, he is rated Russia‘s third richest man by Forbes with a fortune of £11.5bn. He owns a private investment fund, co-owns Russia’s largest gold producer Polyus Gold, as well as Snob, a Russian-language magazine. In May, he became the first foreigner to own a stake in a National Basketball Association club, the New Jersey Nets.
All this, and yet if you believe him he bears a grudge against the Kremlin. The grudge stems from his first experience of the rough and tumble of Russian politics; the moment when, in September, he was ousted from the leadership of a Kremlin-backed rightwing party Right Cause, into which he had sunk £10.4m of his own money.
As well as wanting his money back, he also sought the head of the grey cardinal of Putin’s inner circle, Vladislav Surkov. The affair caused puzzlement among Kremlin watchers at the time.
Was it a genuine example of the Petrushka effect, when a puppet rebels against puppet master? Or was it part of another, as yet unpublished script? He said at the time that his was a challenge to Surkov, not to the system: “I am no revolutionary.” If he had presented a serious political challenge to Putin as an oligarch, he would be in the same position as Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who is languishing in jail.
The same questions are being asked now that he has said he will run for president against Putin. One possibility is that Prokhorov is part of an elaborately choreographed political ballet to create the illusion of a genuine opposition. The other is that, having seen up to 50,000 turn out in the bitter cold in Moscow on Saturday, and big demonstrations in St Petersburg, he might sense a genuine opportunity. Either way, Prokhorov’s bid will not be unwelcome to Putin.
The Russian prime minister has several problems, including a population who dares to challenge him, a shrinking wallet with which to buy them off, and an election that has to be won handsomely in just three months’ time.
But even though his personal ratings have taken a dramatic dive, largely as a result of his own mistakes, Putin retains an unassailable lead over all possible pretenders.
Having a young, rich, ambitious and rightwing Russian to challenge him will create a political contest which Putin is still bound to win. And he can always offer the talented Prokhorov a job in his administration afterwards, thus providing the balance that the ruling elite currently lacks after the departure of Moscow mayor Yuri Luzkhov.
Prokhorov’s challenge is the challenge of an insider, a member of the benighted inner circle of the extremely rich. He is not going to challenge the system, and yet this surely is what the thousands of Russians who have been demonstrating want. He lives in a different world from the rest of his countrymen and can spend a lot of money promoting himself, but whether he will be able to speak for the millions who are tired of living poor lives in a “managed democracy” is another matter.