Five men are running for president in Russia’s March 4 elections, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and three other candidates who first ran in prior decades. Then there is Mikhail Prokhorov, who launched his candidacy only two months ago.
Standing just more than two meters tall, Mikhail Prokhorov feels at home on a basketball court. A lifelong player, he now owns the New Jersey Nets, a professional American NBA team.
So why is Mr. Prokhorov, Russia’s third richest man, spending an afternoon coaching Moscow middle schoolers?
He is running for president.
Facing a battery of TV cameras, he says sports and culture unites Russia, not rockets, tanks and the secret police.
An actress and mother of a boy at the school, Inna Pivars, said she was impressed by the candidate and his program. She said she likes the fact Prokhorov is young, modern, and supports better funding for schools and cultural institutions.
At age 46, Prokhorov is a fresh face in a field that includes two other opposition candidates who first ran for president in the 1990s.
Public-opinion surveys indicate Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will win next month's election, most likely in the first round.
But these polls also indicate that after only two months of campaigning Mr. Prokhorov will come in second in Russia’s two most important cities, Moscow and St. Petersburg. He calls for cutting corruption, cutting government workers, ending the military draft, and allowing Americans and Europeans to visit Russia without visas.
Around the corner from the Moscow school, NB Art Gallery manager Maria Rappaport said many Moscow residents see Mikhail Prokhorov as an alternative to Vladimir Putin. “I think that many people will be voting for him, at least in the capital," she said.
But she added that many voters resent a man who became wealthy by buying state companies after the collapse of communism. “And I do not see how Prokhorov can convince people in the villages, for the fact that he is an oligarch. And people do not trust oligarchs in this country," she said.
Her colleague Anna Ramzhan will vote for Prokhorov. But, she cautioned, “Lots of people tell that he is just a creation of Putin.”
A convenient opponent?
Candidate Prokhorov avoids direct criticism of Mr. Putin. Here is his response to VOA’s question about growing anti-Americanism in the Putin campaign. He says Russia is a strong country that will solve its own problems without any outside interference.
Masha Lipman at Carnegie Moscow Center, notes Mr. Prokhorov announced his candidacy two days after anti-Putin protests broke out in Moscow. She says no Russian billionaire is independent of the Kremlin. “He is a convenient contender, a convenient competitor for Putin," she said.
She adds that Mr. Prokhorov’s billionaire status also limits his popular appeal. “In Russia, there is no infatuation with the fat cats [wealthy and powerful people], to say the least. People resent the fact that he is a billionaire. In Russia, there is a sense that if you gained so much money you did that at the expense of the people. They are ill gotten gains," she said.
For many voters, Mr. Prokhorov’s basketball skills will not distract from a fortune valued at $18 billion. But a strong second-place showing could force Russia’s next President to adopt some of the free-market agenda of Mikhail Prokhorov.