Billionaire Prokhorov Looks to Revamp Party

Billionaire Prokhorov Looks to Revamp Party

Published: May 18, 2011 (Issue # 1656)

MOSCOW — Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said Monday that he would lead Right Cause, the only party that has supported a second term for President Dmitry Medvedev, but observers expressed doubt that he would be able to salvage it from political limbo.

The 46-year-old owner of the New Jersey Jets, named Russia’s third-richest businessman with a fortune of $18 billion by Forbes in April, was tipped to join the pro-business Right Cause party last month but dismissed it as an April Fool’s joke at the time.

His appointment would spell the return of big money to national politics after almost a decade of separation under an unwritten contract between big business and the Kremlin. But whether the party will be able to win seats in State Duma elections in December remains to be seen, analysts said.

“I confirm, the information is correct,” Prokhorov replied curtly at a news conference in Kaluga when asked about news reports that he planned to head the party.

“I’ve addressed my proposal to the Right Cause party bosses,” he said, Interfax reported.

He refused to elaborate until his candidacy is approved, but said he would propose a new party platform and a new name to better cater to the still-politically neglected middle class.

Prokhorov’s confirmation appears to be a matter of time. Right Cause co-founder and co-chairman Leonid Gozman confirmed to The St. Petersburg Times that the party backed Prokhorov as able to challenge the supremacy of the ruling United Russia party.

“The party wishes to destroy United Russia’s monopoly on power,” Gozman said in a telephone interview.

A public figure can currently “either join United Russia or stay neutral,” Gozman said. “But we would like to see part of the elite joining a different party.”

Neither Medvedev nor Putin commented on Prokhorov’s remarks.

Prokhorov explained his motives in an e-mail to employees of his Onexim holding that was leaked to the press, appearing in Komsomolskaya Pravda on Monday.

“I got flooded with calls from my colleagues, friends and close ones — the many of you who didn’t understand my refusal,” Prokhorov wrote.

Even his sister, who “can’t stand politics,” told him: “Misha, you should go, you can change something,” the newspaper said.

Prokhorov, a co-owner of Norilsk Nickel who has invested tens of millions of dollars into projects in line with Medvedev’s modernization campaign, has cut a controversial figure in years past. He once threw posh parties at the French ski resort of Courchevel and in 2007 was accused by local police in connection with a prostitution case. He was never convicted of wrongdoing, and the murky case fizzled out the next year.

Prokhorov also co-runs with his sister Irina a prominent charity that sponsors the Nos literary prize.

Prokhorov is a welcome face in government circles, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin personally taking his Yo-Mobile, the country’s first hybrid car, for a test drive in front of cameras last month. But he angered many Russians that same month by proposing that the workweek be expanded from 40 to 60 hours, and other employer-friendly amendments to the Labor Code.

Right Cause, the youngest of the country’s seven registered parties, has achieved little since it was created in 2009 from the merger of the Union of Right Forces, Civil Force and Russia’s Democratic Party.

Right Cause’s inception was sanctioned by the Kremlin, which was looking for a loyal party to unite liberal voters. On Monday, Gozman described the party as a “political compromise” with the authorities.

But the party has won only 14 seats in regional legislatures nationwide since 2009 and failed to make a survey of party popularity conducted last month by Levada Center, the independent pollster. A recent poll by state-run VTsIOM put its public support at 2.9 percent, far below the 7 percent threshold for the State Duma elections.

Analysts blamed the party’s poor performance mainly on the lack of a charismatic leader. It is co-headed by Gozman, journalist Georgy Bovt and Delovaya Rossia head Boris Titov.

To the party’s credit, it has spent quite some time looking for a frontman. Candidates recently named by the media have included First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov, Kremlin economic aide Arkady Dvorkovich and Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

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