Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's bid to return to his nation's presidency, an office he held from 2000 to 2008, picked up a surprise challenger Monday when Mikhail Prokhorov publicly declared his intention to run for the office, too.
Prokhorov is known in Russia for a fortune built on mining and banking interests. Forbes estimates his worth at $18 billion and pegs him as the third-wealthiest person in the county. In the United States, however, he's best known as owner of the NBA's New Jersey Nets, a team he bought in 2009.
"Society is waking up," Prokhorov told the news conference where he declared his candidacy for the March election. He was referring to a series of unexpected public challenges and protests in recent weeks to Putin's power. Without mentioning Putin, Prokhorov said that: "Those authorities who will fail to establish a dialogue with society will have to go."
As Mark reported earlier on The Two-Way, public protests across Russia and questions about fraud in last week's parliamentary elections have raised questions about Putin's true level of popularity, questions that previously seemed unthinkable.
Also a announcing a fresh political enterprise Monday was Putin's former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, as the AP reports:
"In an interview with the business newspaper Vedomosti published Monday, Kudrin said the country needed a new liberal party and 'I am to assist' in creating it."
"Kudrin was fired in September for saying that he would not serve if Medvedev became premier after Medvedev agreed to step aside, become prime minister and allow Putin to run for another term. The decision by Medvedev and Putin to effectively swap positions was seen by critics as cynical and antidemocratic, so Kudrin's dismissal could give him a principled aura."
The Financial Times suggests in its story on the twin announcements that Prokhorov and Kudrin may actually be part of a Kremlin move to give Russian protesters something to believe in:
"Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief ideologist, last week said Russia's political system needed 'a popular liberal party, or rather a party of disgruntled urban communities.'"
"Liberal and pro-business, Mr Prokhorov and Mr Kudrin could be seen as natural leaders for that role, while at the same time appearing at odds with the Kremlin. Mr Prokhorov's decision to run was the lead item on the main state-controlled television evening news."
The New York Times, on the other hand, quotes Prokhorov describing a political dispute as his motivation for seeing the presidency:
"He has barely appeared in public since mid-September, when he was removed as the head of a pro-business party, Just Cause, after clashing with Kremlin political strategists."
"'You may remember, the Kremlin removed me and my allies from Just Cause, and we were not allowed to do what we wanted,' he said. 'It is not in my nature to stop halfway. So for the last two and a half months we sat and worked, very calmly and quietly, and we created all the infrastructure to collect two million signatures,' the number needed to get on the ballot as an independent candidate."
Back over at Forbes, Brian Solomon has a reminder for Prokhorov about what can happen, even to billionaires, to people who challenge Putin:
"Prokhorov told Forbes in 2009, 'I never accept the risk I can't control.' Let's hope he's right, and that he fares better than the last billionaire to take on Putin."
"Mikhail Khodorkovsky, once the richest person in Russia, has been behind bars since 2003, convicted on fraud charges and tax evasion. He was supposed to be released this year but instead was convicted a second time in December 2010 of embezzling more than 200 million tons of oil and laundering the proceeds, adding six more years onto their time in the slammer. To many, the verdicts were politically motivated, a move by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to keep his political foe locked up. An aide to the judge stepped down after alleging that the judge had been pressured to issue a guilty plea."