Mikhail Prokhorov: ‘Playing the long game’

A tycoon known more for being a playboy than politically active, Prokhorov is running in Russia’s presidential poll.

Mikhail Prokhorov
Prokhorov eyes boxes holding some of the two million signatures he needed to run in the presidential election [EPA]

Mikhail Dmitrievitch Prokhorov, who is running to be president of Russia on 4 March, is the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Born to a privileged Muscovite family, his parents died from heart disease within a year of each other when they were in their late 50s and Prokhorov was in his early 20s.

Prokhorov, who is just over two metres tall, studied at the Moscow Finance Institute, before earning his money through companies dealing with gold nickel and palladium.

As of March of 2011, Forbes magazine estimated his net worth to be around $18bn, placing Prokhorov in 32nd place on the publication’s list of global billionaires.

The figures make him the third wealthiest man in Russia, behind steel barons Vladimir Lisin and Alexei Mordashov.

‘Puppet Kremlin party’

In June 2011, Prokhorov, 46, was elected to the leadership of Right Cause, a pro-business political party seen as favouring the more liberal policies of Dmitry Medvedev, the president, over those of Vladimir Putin, who is attempting to become his succesor. 

Suspicion of Kremlin backing still stalks Prokhorov

His leadership lasted just a few months, with Prokhorov resigning in September and branding Right Cause as a “puppet Kremlin party”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Richard Sakwa, professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, said: “He tried to run a political party like a business company and it really didn’t work, and it alienated a lot of people, both his opponents and his friends. 

“So he was sacked, he was kicked out by manipulation of the Kremlin in September 2011.

“He was thrown out because he wasn’t controllable, in one sense, he also wasn’t a very efficient manager within the party.”

In December 2011, Prokhorov announced that he would run for president, calling it at the time “probably the most important decision of my life”.

Some analysts accuse Prokhorov of being a Kremlin plant, someone meant to split opposition votes and make it easier for Putin to sweep back into the presidential office. Prokhorov denies the accusation

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Sarah Michaels, senior Russian analyst and deputy director of analysis at Oxford Analytica, a global analysis and advisory firm, said: “Given the history of co-ordination between the Kremlin and Prokhorov on the Right Cause political party earlier this year, it is extremely unlikely that Prokhorov is pursuing an independent campaign,”

“That does not mean that he completely lacks credibility – he is still a very influential and wealthy figure in the industrial elite.

“However, Putin is quite comfortable keeping Prokhorov in the presidential race. 

“Otherwise, Prokhorov would have been disqualified by the Central Election Commission – which is what happened to Grigory Yavlinsky, a genuinely anti-system liberal candidate.” said Michaels.

Fortunate mishap

“For me, life, and business in particular, is a big game,” Prokhorov told a US news show in 2010.

Prokhorov to take on Putin in presidential election 

Regardless of his chances of winning the biggest prize in Russian politics, Prokhorov remains one of the more colourful characters in the race.

His decision to purchase the New Jersey Nets basketball team and his partying ways have won him a place in tabloids around the world.

In 2008, French authorities briefly held him on a prostitution probe after Prokhorov flew a number of Russian women to party with his guests in 2007 at the Courchevel resort located in the French Alps.

The charges against Prokhorov were eventually dropped.

The incident embarrassed his business partner, Vladimir Potanin, a Kremlin insider, to such an extent that he was able to force Prokhorov to sell him his stake in Norilsk Nickel.

The sale, which took place just before the Russian stock market suffered a huge slump, worked out well for Prokhorov.

He is estimated to have sold his 16.6 per cent shares of the company to Potanin for $10bn.

In 2008, he lost a $58.9m deposit he had put on an estate in the French riviera, missing a deadline to pull out of the deal when he changed his mind over the purchase.

Playing ‘the long game’

In addition to Prokhorov, the candidate list includes A Just Russia leader Sergei Mironov, Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

In theory, all three of them could join together and decide to drop out in an effort to delegitimise poll.

“And so by Prokhorov running, it makes that tactic impossible, because Prokhorov clearly wouldn’t join that conspiracy – he wins a lot by just being a candidate,” said Sakwa, adding that Prokhorov is running to “ensure that the elections remain constitutional”.

Simply by playing the role of being a liberal and “the other candidate – you can’t just have one candidate” helps add a layer of legitimacy to the election, said Sakwa.

Discussing why Prokhorov would stand when there was little chance of his winning, Sakwa said: “Business, politics, academic life, is part of  a larger social intelligensia culture, in which they feel you cannot fulfill yourself only by being a business person.”

“Just by simply running, he’s currying favour with the regime,” said Sakwa, noting that Prokhorov has been careful to never attack Putin directly.

Michaels said: “One important factor in Prokhorov’s presidential run is his desire to increase his own political clout – with the aim of better protecting his wide array of interests in the metals sector, financial services and the media.

“He is playing the ‘long game’, and almost certainly knows that he has no chance of defeating Putin on March 4. 

“However, his campaign could set him up for a more prominent and overtly political role over the next five to ten years.”

Follow D. Parvaz on Twitter: Dparvaz 

Source: Al Jazeera