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Battle for Russia: A billionaire challenges Putin's might

Last updated on: December 14, 2011 11:06 IST

Battle for Russia: A billionaire challenges Putin's might

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He is Russia's third richest person. This 6 feet 8 inches 'giant' has survived many scandals, and currently sits on an empire worth $18 billion (about Rs 95,300 crore). On Monday, he told the media in Moscow that he was taking the most important decision of his life.

Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team who also has stakes in a major gold producer, announced his decision to challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in next March's presidential election.

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Image: Mikhail Prokhorov addressing the media in Moscow on Monday
Photographs: Reuters

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'Putin's hand has been weakened by a significant drop of support'

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While he was cautious not to cross Putin's path in the past, Prokhorov may pose a serious challenge to Putin, whose authority has been dented by the December 4 parliamentary election and massive protests against vote fraud.

The oligarch said on Monday that a decision to run for president was 'the most important decision' in his life. Putin's hand has been weakened by a significant drop of support for his party in the parliamentary vote.

"But the announcement appeared to some analysts to be a Kremlin attempt to redirect protesters' ire from the streets, organised by the unauthorised opposition, into a liberal project controlled by the corridors of power," a report in the London-based Guardian newspaper stated.


Image: Russian PM Putin gestures during a meeting with organisers of the All-Russian People's Front in Moscow
Photographs: Reuters

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'Prokhorov a pure fake and bluff'

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Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Gazeta.ru that Prokhorov -- who has a history of involvement in Kremlin-inspired politics -- was "a pure fake and bluff", the report added.

"However, his presidential bid presents a total about-face regarding Putin's handling of the government. Just last week, as the first signs of the protest movement began to emerge, he took to his blog to say: "Whether you like it or not, Putin is so far the only one who can somehow manage this ineffective government machine," the report also added.

The billionaire has tried his hand at politics before. He spent a brief four months as head of the pro-business Right Cause party, until he was kicked out in September -- something he blamed on the Kremlin's chief strategist and ideologist Vladislav Surkov.


Image: File image of Prokhorov participating in a friendly basketball match in Moscow
Photographs: Reuters

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'Society is waking up, whether Putin wants it or not'

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"The project was a failed attempt to garner liberal support ahead of the parliamentary elections earlier this month, and was apparently derailed by the Kremlin once it got too popular," the report said.

"Society is waking up, whether you want it or not," he said on Monday. "If the powers, in the widest sense of the word, don't carry out a dialogue (with the protesters), then those powers will soon have to go."

Prokhorov, the billionaire founder of the Onexim Group, which has a wide variety of interests, with gold and nickel mining at their core, was born in Moscow in 1965. His father worked for the Soviet State Sports Committee and his mother was a research scientist.

After studying at the Moscow Finance Institute (now the Finance University) he went to work in the banking sector.


Image: Security forces detain an anti-government protestor in Moscow on Saturday
Photographs: Reuters

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His journey has been full of ups and downs

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As chairman of Onexim Bank he was able to buy a stake in Norilsk Nickel during the largely unregulated sell-off of Russian industries in the 1990s, a BBC report stated.

However, he was forced to sell his stake in the metals giant on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008, after becoming embroiled in a prostitution scandal in France, where he was arrested on suspicion of arranging prostitutes for guests at a party he hosted in the French Alpine resort of Courchevel.

The case was later dismissed, and Prokhorov was cleared.

In 2008, he launched a Russian online and glossy lifestyle-and-business magazine entitled 'Snob' and later took the project to the UK and the US, the report added.


Image: A pedestrian walks past a poster with the face of Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov hanging near Moscow's Red Square
Photographs: Reuters

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A tall challenge for a 'giant'

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It needs to be seen how the oligarch gathers the mandatory 2 million signatures of support before the elections commission approves his candidacy.

Russia's protest movement, which saw 50,000 people denouncing election fraud and Putin's rule on Saturday, has forced the Kremlin to acknowledge the void in liberal representation in government.

The government has repeatedly refused to register liberal parties and has allowed no serious opponents to Putin to emerge. As such, it is going to be tall challenge for this 'giant.'



Image: Russian residents in Britain protest against Putin outside the Houses of Parliament in London
Photographs: Reuters
Tags: Putin , Kremlin , Russia

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