(Updates with today’s pro-Putin rally in fourth paragraph, analyst comments from sixth, opposition leader in last.)
Dec. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said he’ll run for president against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in March elections after the biggest anti-government demonstrations in a decade emboldened Russia’s opposition.
“This is the most important decision of my life,” the New Jersey Nets basketball team owner told reporters in Moscow.
Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man with a fortune Forbes magazine put at $18 billion, said that he’ll seek to build support from the grassroots level and that he opposes “revolution” and “populism.” Prokhorov, 46, quit as leader of the Pravoye Delo, or Right Cause, party on Sept. 15, accusing President Dmitry Medvedev’s administration of blocking the group’s preparations for parliamentary elections in December.
That Dec. 4 vote, in which Putin and Medvedev’s United Russia party retained its majority, was neither free nor fair, observers from the U.S. and Europe said. Thousands of Russians took to the streets in the week after the contest to protest the results amid widespread reports of ballot-stuffing. Police estimated the crowd at Moscow’s Dec. 10 rally, the largest in the country, at 25,000, the same figure they ascribed to a pro- United Russia rally near Red Square today.
Russian’s benchmark Micex Index of 30 stocks fell 2.4 percent at 6:05 p.m. in Moscow, extending last week’s 7.3 percent decline, the biggest in almost three months. The ruble weakened for an eighth-straight day against the dollar, falling 0.4 percent to 31.5808.
Prokhorov may have the support of ousted Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, who told the Vedomosti newspaper in an interview published today that he supports the creation of a new right-of- center party, a topic he has discussed with Prokhorov. Kudrin was the second longest-serving minister in the government when he resigned Sept. 26, citing disagreements with Medvedev over spending policy.
Prokhorov is seeking to be an “integrator” who can unite Russia’s liberal opposition, the billionaire told the Interfax news service in an interview after his press conference.
The initiative may be a ploy to benefit Putin by legitimizing the March vote through the appearance of genuine competition, said Sergei Markov, a former United Russia lawmaker who heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow.
“There are two possibilities here, either it’s something agreed with Putin to bolster the legitimacy of the presidential elections after the recent protests or Prokhorov could be jumping on the bandwagon of the protests,” Markov said by phone in Moscow. “Prokhorov is a glamorous oligarch and he’s got plenty of money to spend on promoting himself.”
Medvedev yesterday ordered an investigation into the allegations of fraud in the parliamentary poll as the swelling resentment threatened to weaken Putin’s presidential bid. Putin served the maximum two-consecutive terms from 2000 to 2008, when he stepped aside in favor of his protégé Medvedev. Putin said in September that he’d appoint Medvedev prime minister if he wins in March. Parliament lengthened the presidential term to six years from four after Medvedev came to office, giving Putin the opportunity to prolong his stay in power to a quarter century.
Prokhorov said both Putin and Medvedev declined to meet with him to discuss his presidential bid and that he’ll spend 10 percent of his campaign criticizing Putin and the rest laying out his proposals. He also said he isn’t afraid of suffering the fate of jailed former Yukos Oil Co. billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Khodorkovsky was Russia’s richest man when he was arrested at gunpoint on the tarmac of a Siberian airport in October 2003. He was sentenced to a total of 13 years in two separate convictions for fraud, tax evasion and oil embezzlement as Yukos was dismantled and sold at auction to cover more than $30 billion in back taxes. Khodorkovsky, who denies any guilt, says he was targeted by Putin for financing opposition parties.
Prokhorov’s presidential run is “a special Putin project that aims to simulate a Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the election” and give the illusion of democracy, said Alexei Mukhin, head of the Moscow-based Center for Political Information.
Still, Putin is determined to garner the minimum 50 percent of the vote he needs to avoid a runoff, Mukhin said.
“Vladimir Putin is the dominant figure, he’ll win the presidency for sure, but making it only on the second round would be a huge setback for him,” Mukhin said. “He’ll do everything to avoid that.”
Prokhorov said he’ll need about a month to file all the paperwork and collect the 2 million signatures needed to be included on the ballot as an independent.
“His entry could be a game-changer” if he manages to pass those hurdles and be certified by the Central Elections Committee, which is controlled by Putin, said Lilit Gevorgyan, a London-based analyst at IHS Global Insight.
“He could certainly act as a channel to vent out the frustration of many young professional voters who can’t bring themselves to vote for Communists or nationalists for the sake of not voting for Putin,” said Gevorgyan. “It could even result in a runoff election.”
Stanislav Govorukhin, the film director Putin tapped to lead his presidential campaign, declined to comment on Prokhorov’s candidacy or Putin’s strategy for addressing the protesters, when Bloomberg reached him by phone
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the premier is aware of Prokhorov’s political intentions, adding that it’s every Russian’s right to run for president, news services including state-run RIA Novosti reported.
“Prokhorov’s task is to help Putin get elected,” said Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister under the late President Boris Yeltsin whose opposition Parnas group was banned from running for parliament. “A billionaire would never have taken such a risk if he hadn’t had an agreement with Putin.”
--With assistance from Henry Meyer, Lyubov Pronina and Scott Rose in Moscow. Editors: Brad Cook, Balazs Penz
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