Mikhail Prokhorov, owner of the New Jersey Nets and Russia's third richest man with a net worth of $18 billion, has announced his candidacy for the presidency in opposition to Vladimir Putin.
In the murky politics of Russia nothing is straightforward, and to put it in terms of Russian history, we do not yet know whether Prokhorov is a Constitutional Democrat or a Father Georgy Gapon.
During the czarist era, a Constitutional Democratic Party existed that sought to bring about change by legal reforms rather than by revolution. Prokhorov has ruled out revolution and seeks to work with establishment figures such as former finance minister Alexei Kudrin who was sacked after opposing the current economic policy. A controversial figure in czarist Russia was the double agent Father Gapon, leader of the trade union movement that was controlled by the czarist secret police.
Prokhorov's announcement can be interpreted as a direct challenge to the Putin system. During the period of Boris Yeltsin, the oligarchs controlled politics and the media.
Under Vladimir Putin the relationship was reversed. If an oligarch was willing to toe the line, promise not to interfere with Putin and maybe make some timely donations to a region that the leadership wanted to upgrade, he could keep his fortune and perhaps even be provided with a governorship. Roman Abramovich, the owner of Chelsea, fits this category. If however an oligarch like Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who once controlled the Yukos petroleum empire, stepped into politics without the blessing of Putin Incorporated, he quickly found himself behind bars on trumped up charges.
Prokhorov is challenging the rules of the game. Having previously broken with president Medvedev amidst charges that the Kremlin bureaucracy was manipulating the Right Cause Party, the industrialist has taken a more oppositional role. However, a few days before making his announcement he tweeted that only Vladimir Putin was capable of running the country.
Prokhorov brings to the presidential race an exciting new face. All of Putin's other opponents: The Communist Gennady Zuganov, the Liberal Democrat Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Yabloko's Yavlinsky are tired faces.
Prokhorov, the kick boxer and lady's man, can match Putin in machoism and at 46 he has a 13 year advantage over the 59-year-old Putin. Prokhorov's status as an NBA owner provides him with some form of immunity. The Kremlin can strike against his assets in Russia but is doubtful that they would risk an attack on the person of such a high profile figure.
Prokhorov's problem is to convince opposition sympathizers, particularly from the middle class, that he is the real deal and not a candidate controlled by the regime to blunt the protest movement.
For example, when he threw his hat into the ring the announcement was carried by the major television stations that are under government control, and this immediately engendered suspicion. Why would the government-friendly media outlets publicize the event unless the government stood behind it?