One of the main reasons tens of thousands of middle-class Muscovites are taking to the streets is because they lack any political representation in Russia’s Potemkin democracy. Last summer, the Kremlin tried to revive a token liberal party by enticing billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, to lead it into the December parliamentary elections. But the project soon fell apart when Prokhorov quit in disgust, saying the Kremlin was preventing him from following an independent course.
Now Prokhorov is back, campaigning to be the modernizing Russian leader that lame-duck President Dmitry Medvedev pretended to be. The 46-year-old presidential candidate promises to uproot corruption, diversify the economy and adopt a pro-Western foreign policy. But unlike Medvedev – who was merely reserving the presidential seat for Vladimir Putin because of a ban on three consecutive terms – Prokhorov has ambition and a growing electorate.
The metals magnate was still trailing the pack in mid-January, but has since moved up to third place, according to opinion polls published separately by the FOM and VTsIOM polling agencies on Monday. Putin is now projected to win about 60 percent of the vote, followed by Communist fossil Gennady Zyuganov, roughly 15 percent, and Prokhorov, just under 9 percent. Political clown Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the nondescript foil Sergei Mironov bring up the rear.
Prokhorov is the fourth of Putin’s willing helpers since he’s doing his part to legitimize an election that is essentially a charade. Yet Prokhorov plays the wingman today only because that’s the price of infiltrating the existing system. The disparate anti-government protest movement that took shape after the parliamentary election faces an uncertain future after Sunday’s vote. Prokhorov, on the other hand, is using the presidential campaign to position himself as the leader of a new generation of Russian liberals.
On Valentine’s Day this year, Russia’s most eligible bachelor returned to his alma mater, the Finance University on Leningradksy Prospekt. The elite government school is housed in a Stalin-era brick building whose facade is decorated with columns and hammer-and-sickle emblems. Well-dressed students filled the university auditorium, which resembled a concert hall with its parquet floors and ornate stucco.
Brett Yormark, the CEO of the Nets, warmed up the young crowd with a guest lecture on the business of running an NBA team. Yormark spoke the brash lingo of corporate America, but the students had no trouble following him and peppered him with questions in English.
As Yormark wound down his talk, a very tall man appeared at the top of the center aisle; the candidate had arrived. Applause greeted the Finance University’s most successful graduate. With a net worth of $18 billion, the metals magnate is Russia’s third – and the world’s 32nd – richest man, according to Forbes magazine.
Prokhorov strode up to the stage. Unlike speakers of a different generation who cling to podiums and scraps of paper, Prokhorov stood in the middle of the stage holding a cordless microphone. His campaign slogan “Demand more!” was projected on a white screen behind him.
Prokhorov spoke freely and concisely, exuding self-confidence.
“Twenty-five years ago, I was where you are today,” he said. “I remember: we were young, active and brimming with energy. We thought the whole world was ours – and it’s true, the world did belong to us. Only we were limited because of the Soviet Union. Today’s situation is similar. We need changes.
“We stand before the question: will our country continue to exist or not. The world is changing very fast,” Prokhorov continued. “The future starts now.
“Don’t think the country will take care of you. You must take care of the country.”
If Prokhorov seemed to be cribbing from U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s famous inaugural speech, it’s because his central message is that Russians must break a paternalistic model of governance cemented by centuries of serfdom and decades of communism. Russians must start seeing themselves as taxpaying citizens whose first demand of government should be accountability, not hand-outs.
Because of his summer affair with the Kremlin’s liberal party, Right Cause, Prokhorov battles the impression that his presidential candidacy is also no more than a dalliance to please Putin.
“We live in a country with an authoritarian political regime. We live in a false world with false politics and a false economy.” – from Prokhorov’s platform
If Prokhorov is serious about chipping away at the system from inside, it’s not surprising that his criticism of Putin is indirect. Anything else would be political suicide. Prokhorov’s position is that Putin did his thing and now his time is up. If the demonstrations don’t die down after the election, Prokhorov could emerge as a compromise figure – not as close to power as former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, a liberal Putin ally, and not as radical as anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny, the hero of many young protesters.
At the Finance University, Prokhorov tried to explain that his motivation for going into politics was civic duty. The fact he can’t have any financial incentive adds credibility to his story – and makes him look incorruptible to his supporters.
“Helping the country is cooler” than just worrying about business or family, Prokhorov told the students. “I want that when we travel abroad and say we’re from Russia, people will envy us.”
Prokhorov’s speech was over. But before the question-and-answer session could begin, first-year students put on a skit showing highlights of his life, from his university years to an early business venture selling blue jeans. Prokhorov sat awkwardly in a chair, barely cracking a smile.
A male student quizzed Prokhorov on his campaign platform, asking if he’d even bothered to read it. The candidate responded in his straightforward but overly serious manner: not only had he read the platform, he’d written it.
Prokhorov’s program is a sweeping overhaul of the Russian state centered on political reform and the fight against corruption. His first three steps as president would be 1) to free Putin foe and oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky from prison; 2) to make a constitutional limit of two four-year presidential terms over a lifetime, closing the loophole Putin is using to run a third time; and 3) to end state control over the national TV channels.
Another student wanted to know more about the fiasco with Right Cause. Prokhorov admitted that he’d rushed into politics and said he’d learned from his mistakes, namely that you can’t just take an empty vessel and fill it.
“You need to start a political party from scratch,” Prokhorov said.
Prokhorov has since turned the formation of a new political party into the real purpose of his presidential bid. He has more than half a million subscribers on social networks and more than 40,000 people have signed up to join his party, according to his campaign web site (click here for the English-language version).
The students had studied Prokhorov’s political platform, and the candidate confidently fielded questions on the necessity for education, pension and military reform. He criticized the bloated defense budget, saying “we’re not preparing for World War III.”
The auditorium loved this earnest, intelligent, successful man. When he stepped down from the stage, he was mobbed by students wanting to take their photos with him and get his autograph. Outside in the foyer, a battery of television cameras – from state-run Rossia to Al-Jazeera – lay in wait. An impromptu press conference began. Prokhorov handled all the attention with his trademark cool.
I asked a student observing the tussle for autographs about Prokhorov’s appeal.
“We’ll support him not just because he’s a graduate of our university,” he said. “He has good positions and is a good person. I think young people will support him.”
Near the cloakroom, I talked to two students, Yekaterina Petrova, 20, and Viktoria Golinskaya, 18, both from provincial towns outside Moscow. They said they’d cast their ballots for Prokhorov in their first presidential election as voters.
“He’ll raise Russia to the world standard,” said Petrova. “He’ll improve our roads and infrastructure.”
I asked what she thought about Putin. “Putin promises a lot, but what has he done?” she said. “I’m indifferent to Putin. He’s lost my trust.”
“But how can you support a candidate who’s guaranteed to lose?” I asked.
“Maybe his first try won’t work out,” said Golinskaya. “Russia is a big country. There’s a lot of disinformation, and people only know about Putin.”
During the eight years I’d lived in Russia, I’d never seen people express so much enthusiasm about a politician, and I told the girls as much.
“We’re not cynical about politics,” said Golinskaya. “We care about the future of our country.”