MOSCOW -- It took under an hour for news of Mikhail Prokhorov's surprise bid for the presidency to be written off on blogs as a Kremlin ruse to siphon off votes from would-be challengers to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
The knee-jerk reaction was not based on hard facts, but it showed -- at the very least -- that the charismatic billionaire may find it difficult to harness the public discontent that on December 10 spilled out into the largest anti-Kremlin rally since the early 1990s.
Prokhorov told reporters on December 12 that he is trying to tap into the disgruntled young middle class that Putin nurtured in his 12-year rule but which is now clamoring for greater political rights.
"I have made a decision and it is perhaps the most important decision in my life. I'm going to run for president," he said. "As you remember, the Kremlin removed me and my comrades from Right Cause and we could not accomplish what we wanted. It is not my habit to stop halfway."
Prokhorov has a history of close ties to the authorities. This past summer -- in what was widely seen as a Kremlin-approved project -- he briefly took the reins of the liberal Right Cause party.
The billionaire mogul, however, left the party and stormed out of the parliamentary election race on September 15, claiming that deputy Kremlin chief of staff Vladislav Surkov, who is widely seen as the regime's unofficial ideologist, was meddling in his party and micromanaging a faux election campaign. But it seems it will take more than that to convince his prospective electorate he isn't working for the Kremlin again -- even more so as his remarks appeared in sync with the script being read by other close Putin allies.
On the same day as Prokhorov's announcement, former Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin revealed plans to create a liberal party to pander to the same disgruntled section of society, echoing earlier comments from Surkov about the need for a mass liberal party for the “disgruntled urban communities.”
In a blog post on December 12, political analyst Marina Litvinovich said that Prokhorov’s own recent blog postings show his disagreement with the Kremlin over the Right Cause party is water under the bridge, and that he has been deliberately deployed by the Kremlin to bolster Putin’s reelection.
Litvinovich wrote: “Prokhorov may position himself entirely like an opposition candidate in order to draw attention to himself, votes, and the aspirations of people on Bolotnaya [Square]. And so that people like [opposition leaders Eduard] Limonov, [Boris] Nemtsov, [Aleksei] Navalny, [Boris] Akunin, and [Yevgenia] Chirikova disappear from the field of vision, leaving behind one opposition candidate.”
Skeptics like Litvinovich also point to the fate of tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who dabbled in politics and ended up behind bars. They say Prokhorov, worth an estimated $18 billion, has too much at risk and very little to gain from cutting his teeth on a presidential race more than likely to hand Putin a third term in the Kremlin.
A Kremlin Project?
Vladimir Pribylovsky, director of the Panorama Center, says that the ease with which Prokhorov’s campaign develops will indicate whether he is indeed a “Kremlin project.”
There are no free elections in Russia and this hasn't changed since December 4.
“We can’t say for certain yet. It all depends on whether he manages to register. If they register him, then it was definitely sanctioned by Surkov, and Surkov is carrying out Putin’s will," Pribylovsky says. "Surkov gives counsel and Putin either approves it or not. There just isn’t enough information yet. This check will tell us.”
Dmitry Orlov, the director of the Agency for Political and Economic Communications, disagrees that it's a project with Surkov’s backing, because Prokhorov and Surkov “have a very bad personal relationship.” He also says that Prokhorov clearly has political ambitions and could get as much as 10 percent in the election “if his campaign goes well.”
“If he’s competing after agreeing with the Kremlin, then it is hopeless," says Leonid Gozman, a former Right Cause official and backer of Prokhorov. "Trying to deceive society won’t work. I really hope that Mikhail Dmitriyevich [Prokhorov] is not going to make the same mistake twice. But he will be able to?
"He has enough organizational and financial resources to collect [the necessary] 2 million signatures, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is whether he is ready for a decisive campaign; whether he is ready to fire up the protests, which were on Bolotnaya and many other squares of our country; and whether he is ready to come out as a candidate against the regime. If he is ready, then he has a chance.”
No Single Opposition Candidate
Meanwhile, the nationalist Liberal Democratic Party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky has put himself forward for the presidency. The Communist Party’s Gennady Zyuganov will also run, while A Just Russia’s Sergei Mironov will compete, much to the disappointment of some liberals who believe they should have selected Oksana Dmitriyeva, a popular party member from St. Petersburg.
The opposition is yet to coalesce around any candidate, spurring speculation that celebrity anticorruption activist and blogger Aleksei Navalny will run. Fringe opposition figure Eduard Limonov of the unregistered Other Russia party has pledged to run, although he is unlikely to get far.
Vladimir Ryzhkov, a former independent State Duma deputy and co-organizer of the December 10 protest, told RFE/RL’s Russian Service that the opposition had not decided on a single candidate.
“There are no free elections in Russia and this hasn’t changed since December 4," Ryzhkov said. "The decision as to who takes part in the presidential election is still taken by Putin. [On December 11] he decided to send Prokhorov to the presidential election to portray the presence of a liberal candidate. We see no reason to take part in what will be a farce, an imitation, and the latest mass falsification.”
Pribylovsky of the Panorama Center says that Kudrin’s plans to form a party to fill a liberal void in the State Duma should not be considered in the same breath as Prokhorov. Despite his resignation as finance minister in September, Kudrin “belongs to the Top 10” elite of the country” and is more senior than Surkov.
“It’s clear that Prokhorov won’t become president and possibly won’t even collect signatures that are accepted as real," Pribylovsky says. "But it will be a good political warm-up for him. In general, in the Right Cause saga, he showed himself to be politically naive, but I think that episode taught him something. But now we are not talking about someone who could possibly pose a serious challenge to Putin.”
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report