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Power and the money

by Anna Arutunyan at 02/02/2012 21:37

When Mikhail Prokhorov, the first Russian oligarch to run for president (and, with the nickname of “Long,” certainly the tallest), revealed his bid last December, the first question on everyone’s mind wasn’t whether he’d win.

It was who had let him run.

“So ask the question that’s on the tip of your tongue,” he said in an interview with The Moscow News this week – referring to the key intrigue surrounding his bid: Did he agree it with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to win the March 4 presidential election?

“No,” Prokhorov repeated categorically. And smiled. Yes, he has influential patrons in the government – but for obvious reasons, he’s not telling who they are. “They’d lose their jobs instantly.”

Prokhorov seemed at ease as he sat down with correspondents from The Moscow News and its sister publication Moskovskiye Novosti in his regal Onexim Group building on Tverskoy Boulevard Friday.

“There is a serious split going on in society, in the elites – which path to take,” he said. According to Prokhorov, there are the liberals who want active development, and the statists who want everything to remain the same.

There’s no denying an under-the-carpet struggle within the Kremlin, and Prokhorov’s emergence – first as the leader of the pro-business Right Cause party last summer and then, after he was booted out of it by Kremlin officials in September, as a presidential candidate – appears to be one of its result.

But despite claiming in the past that he could get a meeting with the President and the Prime Minister whenever he liked, one thing he insists on now is that he has not met with Vladimir Putin to discuss his bid or his plans.

“Since [September], I have not been able to get an audience,” Prokhorov said. “When I understood that I would not get an audience, well, I started acting according to my own plans.”

But rumors to the contrary just won’t die. The New Times magazine wrote in December that one of its sources heard Prokhorov answer a cell call from Putin, who allegedly asked Prokhorov to run for president.

Prokhorov says that would have been impossible. “All my friends are dying of laughter when they read this legend. Everyone knows that I don’t have a mobile phone.”

Prime Minister Putin admitted on Wednesday in televised comments that he had “helped create” Right Cause, but did not mention Prokhorov’s leadership or his ouster from the party. Putin later suggested that ministerial posts in the new government could go to his opponents - something that was being discussed with them, Vedomosti reported, citing anonymous government sources. Prokhorov himself had not ruled out accepting a post in Putin’s government, but denied that he was discussing such plans.

According to independent analyst Stanislav Belkovsky, Prokhorov’s patrons may be Valentin Yumashev, the former chief of staff in Boris Yeltsin’s administration, and Tatyana Dyachenko, Yeltsin’s daughter. “These are people close to Putin,” Belkovsky told The Moscow News. “They brought him to power.”

Second round

Still, Prokhorov insists that he is his own “krysha,” or protection.

“This logic presumes that everyone is a project of Putin. If the mass rallies on Bolotnaya Square and Prospect Sakharova were allowed, then were they Putin’s project?”

They were concessions, Prokhorov agrees, to growing public discontent. “Don’t you think that my appearance on the political scene was yet another concession?”

The job now, he says, is to make it into a runoff with Putin, which will take place if all five candidates fail to get at least 50 percent of the vote. And though he plans to attend Saturday’s mass protest rally, where some 50,000 people are expected to march from Kaluzhskaya Square to Bolotnaya Square, demonstrating is not enough.

“You think that you’ll come out and talk and Putin will get scared and leave? That won’t happen,” he said, adding that the government’s power needs to start being limited by the people, and that will take a lot of effort.

“A second round of election is an important signal for someone like Putin, that he is no longer a… tsar, that there is also society which has other views on what kind of balance the country needs.”

The most recent Levada poll suggested that Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov was likeliest to come in second to Putin, who is expected to get 43 percent, with Prokhorov trailing with just 4 percent. But if Prokhorov faced Putin in a runoff, he could expect about 10 percent of the vote.

Money on the mind

If Prokhorov’s campaign program – which pledges introducing checks and balances in the government – resonates with disgruntled middle-class voters, then he’s facing a challenge courting workers.

Prokhorov, who is estimated to be worth at least $12 billion after successfully cashing out of Norilsk Nickel just before the economic crisis hit, hardly comes off as the guy next door. Standing at a towering 6 ft 8 in, Prokhorov has a special tailor to make suits for him.

Money, he says, has changed the way he thinks.

“Sociologists say that an average person spends 60 percent of his time thinking about how to organize the necessities of daily life,” Prokhorov said. “I don’t have that, so I spend 60 percent of my time worrying about other problems.”

So how will he explain his platform – like his calls to change the country’s labor code to allow people to work longer hours – to those who simply think differently?

“It’s easier for me, because I can spend 60 percent of my time about things an average person has no time for. I can think about these people.”

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #07"
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