Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia's third richest man, said Monday that he would challenge Vladimir Putin in next year's presidential elections.
Putin, currently the Prime Minister, hasn't lost an election in over a decade, but Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball club and whose net worth totals around $18 billion, thinks he can ride a wave of anti-Putin momentum to the top of the government.
Prokhorov is part savvy businessman, part capricious billionaire. He is an industrialist who made his fortune mostly in precious metals, and has used his wealth to accumulate a number of side businesses, such as sports franchises and night-clubs.
His political experience spans eight months, generously. He spent about four months as the head of the Right Cause Party, a pro-business party that was expected to support the Medvedev-Putin ticket. But Prokhorov quit the Right Cause in September, calling it a puppet Kremlin party run by pro-Putin cronies and raiders.
He will now run as an independent, determined that he can garner the required number of signatures legally needed to do so in time to campaign.
You may remember, the Kremlin removed me and my allies from Right Cause, and we were not allowed to do what we wanted, he stated, according to the New York Times.
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.
Prokhorov's vocal condemnation of Putin could 'net' him some significant votes. Russians seem to finally be tired of Putin's near-autocratic control over the last decade of Russian politics. Last week, Putin's United Russia party lost a significant number of parliamentary seats after the national elections, and while it is still has the majority, United Russia no longer has its two-thirds majority, which had given the party uncontested power to change the constitution.
Additionally, allegations of ballot-stuffing and voter fraud sparked a week of protests against Putin's reign. Videos of pollsters filling out blank voting cards and of local election officials vocally supporting support for United Russia made their way online, and have outraged many voters.
As a result, tens of thousands of people have gathered in Moscow and other cities in the largest protests in the post-Soviet era to demand Putin's resignation. President Dmitri Medvedev said that an investigation into the fraud accusations will be opened, but no one is satisfied that a government-run inquiry will yield accurate results.
Aside from Prokhorov, Putin will face off against the Communist Party's Gennady Zyugan, left-wing economist Grigory Yavlinsky and upper-house chairman Sergey Mironov in next year's presidential elections.
Putin has beaten all three in the past, and Prokhorov's freshness could invigorate a frustrated public. Some compare him to Barack Obama, who was able to succeed on a national level in 2008, although the comparison is more one based in hope than based in reality.
And despite his youth and desire to end Putin's puppet-mastery, he is really more Herman Cain than Obama -- a private sector, free market stalwart with little experience but a wealth of enthusiasm.
(He is also a known lothario, although that comparison to Cain isn't totally fair for two reasons: One, because Cain is only an alleged lothario, and two, because Prokhorov is not married, but instead a rich playboy.)
But the real question remains -- is being the president of Russia a serious goal for Prokhorov, or another one of his famous whims, like buying an NBA franchise or owning a missing yacht or financing his own Jet Ski stunt videos?
Yes, he seems to be collecting signatures in earnest, but the man who told the '60 Minutes' television show that he doesn't use a computer and who throws multi-million dollar parties in the Maldives could simply be more interested in having the title and power than actually changing the country.
Additionally, some critics think that Prokhorov actually could himself still be a puppet for Putin, being used to appease protestors and build support for United Russia among the middle class, according to The Guardian. Prokhorov's politics aren't drastically dissimilar from Putin's and he comes from the same class of oligarchs who made fortunes in the transition from communism to capitalism as the Russian Prime Minister.
Nonetheless, Prokhorov seems to be taking this election seriously.
This is the most important decision of my life, Prokhorov said at a news conference. The society is waking up. Those authorities who will fail to establish a dialogue with the society will have to go.
Another possible candidate is 35-year-old Alexei Navalny, a Yale educated anti-corruption blogger who, for some, represents a challenge to the cronyism of Russian politics, as well as the spirit of youth.
Navalny turned up at the protests last Monday, where he was arrested and sentenced to 15 days in prison for obstructing police.
You cannot beat up and arrest hundreds of thousands or millions, Navalny said in a statement from jail. We are not cattle or slaves. We have a voice and we have the strength to defend it.
There is also Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister who was removed after getting into a disagreement with Medvedev in September. Kudrin was once on the list of potential successors to Medvedev, but Putin's announcement that he would run again dashed the economist's chances. However, Kudrin is a skilled and revered politician and many credit him for carrying Russia through the global financial crisis unscathed.
He is reportedly in talks with Prokhorov about forming a new party, one that will either be a legitimate force to contest with Putin's hegemony, or a smoke-and-mirrors game meant to put Putin back on top.