Microphone in hand, Mikhail Prokhorov doesn’t get angry, passionate, rousing, funny or stem-winding. The billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets speaks in a soothing baritone and has barely an unkind word for his opponents in next month’s presidential election, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Competition, respect and a balanced government: That’s the heart of his long-shot pitch. It’s what Russia sorely lacks and must acquire, he says, as if this is all just common sense but has somehow been overlooked for the past 10 years.
Prokhorov, who made his money in nickel, aluminum and gold, has flown to Siberia for the day, to the country’s third-largest city, part of his last-minute bid for the top job. As one of Russia’s richest men, he’s challenging Russia’s most powerful man.
And that man, Putin, has acknowledged that the election might go to a second round — though Prokhorov still has an uphill climb if he’s to be a part of it.
“The government has to work for the people, not the reverse,” Prokhorov says.
It sounds like an applause line, and he uses it often, but it sails right past the thousand curious residents who have packed the enormous Mayakovsky Cinema to hear him speak. However, when he talks about keeping Novosibirsk tax money at work in Novosibirsk instead of shipping it off to Moscow, the hall erupts in applause.
The fabulously wealthy, world-traveling business titan says he wants a “democracy of taxpayers” instead of a corrupt culture of chiseling and extortion. He promises to dismantle what Putin calls the “vertical of power,” under which all authority is concentrated in the Kremlin, by creating an independent judiciary and restoring elections for local officials. He says he is for competition in every field — politics, business, science, what have you.
Prokhorov says the prime minister and parliament have to be a strong counterweight to the president. He says his first act as president would be to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate who was destroyed and imprisoned by Putin, and offer him the prime minister’s post. (Prokhorov fondly calls him “Misha” and a friend.) He says the top 200 officials in government, and their families, would have to sell their business holdings. He says he would sell off state-owned television.
If all this was to happen, it would fundamentally reshape the country. But first, Prokhorov has to convince a skeptical public that he’s for real. An oligarch with no political experience, he’s asking Russians to trust him with the presidency. The rich, as a rule, aren’t popular. But judging by the reaction of those who turn out at the Mayakovsky and sit through two hours of Q&A, they’re at least willing to give him a hearing.
A questioner asks whether he would take a post in government if he doesn’t win — which seems very likely, because Putin still has huge advantages heading into the election. It depends, he says. But his main goal at the moment is to force a second round, by keeping Putin under 50 percent and emerging as the second-place finisher.
Three other candidates, from established parties, are in the mix, and the Communist Gennady Zyuganov is the most likely runner-up. But he’s been around for 20 years, and Prokhorov is betting that Russia could be ready for a fresh face.
Prokhorov says he fully supports the demonstration to be held Saturday in Moscow by activists opposed to Putin, though at the same time he can’t hide his annoyance at being refused a speaking role. The organizers have tried to steer clear of seeming to endorse any candidate.
Earlier political foray
In an interview, he promises he’ll be out of business for good. “When I become president,” he says, “I will sell all my assets and I will pay all the taxes, and I will give more than a half to charity.”
He denies the widely rumored story that he’s a spoiler, recruited by the Kremlin to split the opposition. An earlier foray into politics this past summer, when he took over a moribund political party, was suspect from the start — but he later stomped out of that arrangement, complaining that the Kremlin was trying to control him.
No, he says, he owes Putin nothing.
With political ferment stirring for the first time this century, Prokhorov, 46, decided in December to jump into the race. He says he’s made enough money — though Forbes estimates that his fortune dropped from $18 billion to less than $13 billion in 2011 as Russian stocks took a beating — and now wants to devote himself to his country.
“Listening to him, you want to believe him,” says Svetlana Makurin, whose husband owns a household chemicals company here with 300 employees. The Makurins are typical of those who lately have started to call for political change — well off, insulted by what they see as the arrogance of authority, and uneasy about the future. They’ve been looking for ways to invest their money — in the United States.