Russia’s aspirational voters look to Prokhorov

In a country where corruption is endemic, many supporters see billionaire presidential candidate as “honest”.

Mikhail Prokhorov

As Mikhail Prokhorov arrives on stage at Moscow’s Olympic Stadium he is greeted by the cheers of thousands of supporters gathered at a concert in the Russian capital to promote his bid to become president.

Up close, Prokhorov is tremendously tall, at more than two metres in height he was nicknamed “giraffe” at school.

As he walks through the stadium tunnel to meet the crowd, he towers over everybody around him, including his bodyguards.

Across huge screens, laser images of Prokhorov, shots of his twitter page and flashes of his manifesto promises are beamed to the audience.

The crowd listens attentively to his speech and are then treated to a series of pop music performances.

For many Russians, Prokhorov, with an estimated wealth of about $18bn, symbolises aspiration, the chance to become rich in a country with vast natural resources.

In fact, one is struck by how well dressed most of his supporters are, compared with the often drab clothing favoured by Muscovites.

Many of the women are in designer dresses adorned with gold and furs, while the men are wearing sharp suits and expensive watches.

Prokhorov, 46, studied at the Moscow Finance Institute, before earning his money in finance and then through companies dealing with gold nickel and palladium.

He acquired global attention in 2010 when he bought the New Jersey Net basketball team, the first non-North American owner in the National Basketball Association.

Speaking to supporters, what really attracts them to him is his business experience.

Irina, 34, who works in publishing, says: “He is a good businessman with great experience.”

Tatiana, a 63-year-old lawyer, says: “He is very active, very smart, a good chief executive.”

They seem convinced that Prokhorov will be able to transfer these skills to running Russia, consequently improving its economy and industry and tackling its crippling demographic problems.

Many also describe Prokhorov as “honest”. In a country where corruption is endemic, the finger for which is constantly pointed at Vladimir Putin, who is running for a third term as president, this attribute is critical.

Some analysts accuse Prokhorov of being a Kremlin stooge, a candidate allowed to run in order to split opposition votes and make it easier for Putin to become president once again. Prokhorov denies the accusation.

Putin is widely expected to win the election, in fact, nobody I speak to at the rally believes Prokhorov will be elected.

For them, Prokhorov’s candidacy is about the “long game”. As his profile continues to rise, and criticism of Putin mounts, they believe that by the next election, in 2018, he could claim victory.

Ahead of the election, Prokhorov announced plans to form a new party which he said would aim to “unite civil society” and reform the country from the bottom up.The rally is the last one for Prokhorov before Russia’s voters go to the polls on Sunday.

In much of Moscow you would be hard pressed to know there was an election going on.

By far the most posters are of Prokhorov, who, with his billions in wealth, appears to have been able to spend prodigiously on his campaign.

In the news conference before the concert, I ask Prokhorov, who is single with no children, how Russia can solve its demographic crisis.

He tells me if elected president he will introduce tax advantages for families with three children or more.

His style of answering is serious, methodical, and above all, businesslike.