MOSCOW, Russia — Mikhail Prokhorov carries himself with the confidence of a man who has it all.
Chatting with an interviewer last week, one day after taking the plunge from business into politics, the famously tall oligarch quietly butted in with a correction as he was described as a “millionaire”: “Billionaire, billionaire, excuse me,” he said. “It sounds painful.”
Prokhorov is the third richest man in Russia, and the 32nd richest in the world, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion, according to Forbes. Inside Russia, he’s known for the acrimonious spat that got him kicked out of metals giant Norilsk Nickel, only to leave him cash flush on the eve of the financial crisis, and also for his womanizing (he is known, regularly, as Russia’s most eligible bachelor). In the United States, he’s known for buying the New Jersey Nets last year, and also for his womanizing (though the title "world’s most eligible bachelor" has yet to stick).
Soon he will be known for something else. Late last month, Prokhorov became the leader of Right Cause, a small, pro-market party founded three years ago to represent Russia’s urban middle class, a small but vocal sector of society. From the beginning, the party was a bit of a mystery: many in Russia’s liberal circles criticized it as too Kremlin-friendly. Then one of its founders, self-made businessman Yevgeny Chichvarkin, was forced to flee the country. Some wondered if it had to do with his political ambitions but in the end, as Chichvarkin himself always maintained, the criminal charges levied against him appeared to carry the goal of appropriating his successful retail company.
The party faded into near oblivion, regularly polling at 1 percent in research compiled by the Levada Center. (That number “jumped” to 2 percent in June, after Prokhorov announced his intention to lead.)
Last month the party was back with a bang. It held a big party congress, where Prokhorov was elected. He spoke in a way that combined President Dmitry Medvedev’s modernizing rhetoric — the need for reforms, foreign investment, greater democracy — with the aspirations of Russia’s struggling liberals, including their siren call for jailed Yukos tycoons Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev to be paroled.
Lest anyone think the Kremlin was shocked by the move, Medvedev welcomed Prokhorov to his office two days later. The image of diminutive Medvedev (5’2”) sitting across from Prokhorov (6’9”) quickly put to rest rumblings that the Kremlin would bless the loyal oligarch with a premiership — he would never be allowed in a photograph next to Russia’s next president, be it Medvedev or Vladimir Putin, who appears just slightly taller than Medvedev.
Prokhorov says his aim is to become “the number two party of power.” Speaking to Vladimir Pozner, one of Russia’s top journalists, he criticized the “absolute political monopoly” held by United Russia, without naming the ruling party by name. But the blame didn’t lie with the party, or with Putin, the party’s leader.
“We have an absolute political monopoly — because the other parties don’t put before themselves the task of fighting for power,” he said. “Their task, in a sense, isn’t to take power into their hands but to feed off the percentages they get in elections.” He was referring mainly to the Communists and far-right LDPR party of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, mainstays in Russia’s post-Soviet political scene that appeal mainly to a core group of loyal followers.
He failed to mention that those who do want to fight for power aren’t allowed to. The same day as the Right Cause congress, hundreds showed up in Moscow’s central Pushkin square to protest the authorities’ refusal to register PARNAS, a new political party founded by the country’s best-known opposition politicians, including former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, former MP Vladimir Ryzhkov and former deputy energy minister Vladimir Milov.
The question remained: Was Prokhorov merely the Kremlin’s latest project, an attempt to create the illusion of democracy while bringing in votes from an increasingly disenchanted middle class? Or a man who really hoped to commit himself to politics?
Prokhorov is attempting to show that it’s the latter. He stepped down last week from the management roles he held in his investment group, Onexim, and his company Polyus Gold. (He appears to have been toying with entering politics for a while, with rumors last year saying he had intended to put his name forward for governor of the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk.)
“In principle, these two things don’t conflict,” said Alexey Navalny, a popular anti-corruption crusader and Kremlin critic. “Every party is in one way or another a Kremlin project.”
“There are people inside the Kremlin who think that United Russia has a monopoly and they have to do something to challenge that,” he said. “Prokhorov will never say anything against the Kremlin, if he gets an order to correct his speech, he will.”
“But the appearance of new people in politics is a positive thing. It’s not that this party should give hope, but it shows new political liveliness,” he said.
And liveliness is much needed. Russians have been struggling for months to understand whether Putin or Medvedev will be their next president. It’s affecting business — both the business of running government, where projects are said to be at a stand still, and the business of investment, with investors weary to throw down the cash lest the political scene look different come March 2012.
United Russia, as well as Putin and Medvedev, are polling near record low results. New research released by the Levada Center on Friday showed that 27 percent of Russians would like to see Putin run in March versus 15 percent for Medvedev. But, tellingly, 23 percent said they’d like to see neither one nor the other.
That’s where Prokhorov’s Right Cause comes in. Russia will hold parliamentary elections in half a year, the first chance in a long time for Russians to voice their disappointment with the status quo. Turning that disappointment into votes for a loyal opposition may be the only solution.
What will concern Americans most is what happens with the Nets. Prokhorov, in typically modest fashion, issued a statement that included the following: “I do not anticipate that my decision to take part in Russia's political process will affect the Nets in any way. ... I will continue to be involved in the strategy for the Nets and, at the risk of sounding immodest, I'm known as a pretty good multi-tasker. "
But taking on politics in Russia is a risky enterprise — one minute you're a favorite, the next you're fighting human rights cases in Strasbourg. That's not something Prokhorov has commented on, but it can't be something he's ignored.