Despite mounting protests in the streets of Moscow, and worldwide condemnation of massive voter fraud from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other international figures, the reaction to recent elections for the Russian Duma (parliament) did not bring down the current regime in the Kremlin. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin still seemed destined to achieve his stage-managed “job swap” in 2012: winning back his old job as president in the elections next year, and then appointing front-man President Dmitry Medvedev as prime minister.
For all the uproar over the obviously fraudulent elections (in which Putin’s United Russia party nevertheless lost its two-thirds majority in the Duma), there was no opponent of substance on the horizon to face the “hard man” of Russian politics at the polls in March. To use a phrase common in American politics, “You can’t beat someone with no one.”
All of that changed yesterday, as billionaire industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov announced for the presidency as an independent. Best known in the U.S. as the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, the 46-year-old Prokhorov formerly ran Russia’s largest gold mining operation and aluminum company. His estimated net worth is $18 billion, making him the third-richest Russian and the 32nd richest man in the world, according to Forbes.
Prokhorov is often likened to Italy’s former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who was catapulted into political success from ownership of a world championship soccer team. But a better analogy might be to a famous American tycoon Donald Trump. He is a true entrepreneur and, as he told “60 Minutes,” a lover of what he calls “controlled risk.” He loves the martial arts and has a trainer come to his home to teach him kick-boxing.
And the never-married Prokhorov is an unabashed ladies’ man, joking to Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” that the way “to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” and he has yet to meet a potential wife who could cook to his satisfaction.
“Trump?” harrumphed one American wag. “This guy thinks he’s James Bond, for crying out loud!”
But Is He Really a Putin Apparatchik?
For all his flamboyance and irreverence, Prokhorov is still viewed with suspicion by many in and outside of Russia. His parents came from the Soviet elite and he is an honors graduate of the prestigious Moscow Finance Institute. His contacts in the metals sector and in banking that made him wealthy came in large part through a high-level friend, former First Deputy Premier Victor Potanin.
In 2007, he was arrested for allegedly arranging prostitutes for guests at a Christmas Party he gave at a French Alpine resort. He was later released and officially cleared of the charges—but not without a public put-down from French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
What raises the most suspicion about Prokhorov is that in becoming involved in politics earlier this year, he joined the Right Cause Party. Ostensibly pro-free market and pro-freedom, Right Cause was widely viewed as a political “Potemkin village designed to give Putin, Medvedev and Company the impression of an opponent. Indeed, the party was headed by a top Kremlin staffer, Vladislav Surkov.
Prokhorov partisans point out that their man, upon assuming a leadership position in Right Cause this year, promptly denounced Medvedev and Putin, and condemned Surkov as a “puppet master.” In September, he resigned from Right Cause and, like Ross Perot in the U.S. in 1992, is running for president as an independent with no official party label.
Putin and the Kremlin have, Charles Clover wrote in the Financial Times, “the tools and expertise to intimidate opponents—from 51,000 police and soldiers deployed in Moscow, to Nashi, a Kremlin-backed youth group that employees football hooligans with aluminum bats to crush opposition. There are also tools to buy opponents off—the Reserve Fund and the Welfare Fund, two repositories of Russia’s oil revenues available to finance extra budget spending, totaling $110 billion.”
In many ways, it is easy to understand why former KGB chief Putin is often compared to Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the cold-blooded head of the criminal underground SPECTRE in the James Bond novels and movies.
But perhaps the best way to deal with a Blofeld is with someone who “thinks he’s James Bond, for crying out loud.” The events that unfold around whether Prokhorov can live up to that Bond vs. Blofeld billing will make for a true political thriller in 2012.
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