The Crisis in Russia: A Billionaire to the Rescue ... of Whom?

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Misha Japaridze / AP

Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, right, speaks at a press conference in Moscow on Dec. 12, 2011, to announce he will run against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March 2012 presidential election

Just before noon on Monday, Dec. 12, the Russian billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets, Mikhail Prokhorov, sent an invitation around to the Moscow press corps, a group of people not presently inclined to listen to the musings of an oligarch. Russia is now in the middle of its worst political crisis in more than a decade, and the punishing stream of news has left even veteran reporters bleary-eyed and manic. "This damn well better be good," one of them remarked as Prokhorov sauntered into the room, wearing a purple tie and a smirk. He did not disappoint. Without so much as a preamble, he announced that he would be running against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Russia's paramount leader, in the presidential election this March. For at least the third time in a week, Russia's political drama twisted around like a soap-opera plot.

Here was a man with a fortune of $18 billion, young, slick and at least a head taller than any other local politician, challenging Putin to an electoral duel at the Russian leader's time of greatest weakness. For a brief moment, it was hard not to feel a pang of sympathy for Russia's ruling strongman. Putin's party stands accused of rigging last week's parliamentary elections, which have unleashed an outpouring of public anger unlike any Putin has ever seen. Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied on Saturday, Dec. 10, against the ballot results, shattering what paltry faith was left in Russia's electoral system. In less than three months, Putin will have to face re-election himself, and it was already shaping up to be the fight of his life before Prokhorov stepped into the picture.

But like any good pulp-fiction plot, this one has its share of twists. Prokhorov turns out, upon closer inspection, to be the best opponent Putin could possibly ask for — more like a godsend than another crack on the head. "This will only work in Putin's favor," said Sergei Markov, one of the Kremlin's favored campaign strategists.

By playing the part of Putin's competitor in the upcoming elections, Prokhorov will mollify the protesters who have packed the squares of cities across the country in the past week. These are the hipster masses of the young, urban middle class who have already flooded Prokhorov's Facebook page with supportive comments. In March, instead of protesting against Putin during the election, they will be able to vote for Prokhorov, who explicitly said that he would seek to represent their demographic. Said the plutocrat: "My electoral base is the middle class in the broadest possible sense of the word."

At the same time, however, Prokhorov remains fundamentally unelectable in Russia. "His chances of becoming President are zero," Markov said. "More than anything else, the citizens of Russia hate the oligarchs, who robbed the country blind in the 1990s, and Mikhail Prokhorov is the quintessential oligarch." He also has a ready dossier of alleged scandals, which the state media can drudge up to discredit his campaign. In January 2007, for instance, he was briefly arrested on suspicion of running a prostitution ring in the French Alpine resort of Courchevel during a holiday party for Russia's superrich. "He was caught taking girls from the Russian provinces and corrupting them in posh resorts," Markov alleged. "How do you think the Christian voters are going to take to that?" (After a brief diplomatic tussle, French police released Prokhorov and later declined to pursue the charges, which he has always denied.)

But shouldn't the opposition be glad that Putin will at least face some competition? Not quite. In the elaborate puppet show that is the Russian political system, it is often impossible to keep track of all the strings, but the reigning assumption is that most of them lead back to the Kremlin. So it was not surprising that on Monday Prokhorov was immediately accused of acting in the interests of the government. "He is motivated by one aim — to preserve the Putin regime in our country," said Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader who has rallied the antigovernment protests in the past week.

This claim is routinely made against nearly all of Russia's opposition figures (including Nemtsov himself) but it seems to hold up particularly well in the case of Prokhorov. This summer, by his own admission, Prokhorov was already involved in a Kremlin puppet political party, Pravoe Delo (Right Cause), which was established to absorb the votes of small businessmen. Prokhorov led the party from June to September, until he was ousted for disobeying orders from the Kremlin's chief ideologist, Vladislav Surkov. Still bitter and humiliated, Prokhorov then pulled back the curtain of the Kremlin's political show, calling Surkov a "puppet master" who had long ago "privatized" the democratic process. "I am not willing to take part in this farce," Prokhorov said at the time.

But when he was asked at Monday's press conference how he planned to deal with Surkov in the course of his campaign, Prokhorov answered, "I plan to become his boss." State television, whose coverage Surkov dictates on behalf of the Kremlin, then gave the press conference ample airtime, further fueling the conspiracy theory that this was all a Kremlin ruse. Many commentators pointed out that Surkov himself, less than a week before Prokhorov made his grand announcement, said in an interview that Russia desperately needed "a mass liberal party. Or, to put it more precisely, a party of the annoyed urban communities." He added: "In order to preserve the system and allow it to develop, it has to be opened up. New players need to be allowed in. You can't keep playing with just one figure." As if by design, the vision of the "puppet master" has now been acted out. According to this line of thinking, when Putin goes to the polls, he will face a convenient challenger, whose presence will restore much of the legitimacy Russian elections have lost. That is, of course, if Russian voters fall for it.