Mikhail Prokhorov is Russia's third richest man. Although he has little political experience, he plans to run against Vladimir Putin in the next presidential election. Will his challenge be permitted? And is it genuine?
Mikhail Prokhorov's view of Russia is black and white. Black is the present - a "managed democracy" controlled by Vladimir Putin. White is a future that embraces liberal values - with Mikhail Prokhorov as president, of course.
But before the billionaire businessman can officially present his 12-point program for winning the presidential election on March 4, he needs to be approved as an official candidate.
Prokhorov says he has already collected the two million signatures required to run. The next step is to present them to the Central Election Commission by January 18, when officials will give him either a green or a red light.
A real rival?
Many Russians were surprised by Prokhorov's end-of-year announcement that he intended to run for the presidency. He only switched from commerce to politics in summer, when he was appointed chairman of "Right Cause," a pro-business liberal party.
Prokohorov intended to run in December's parliamentary elections, but infighting saw him give up his chairmanship prematurely. He later accused the Kremlin of trying to drive a wedge through his party.
Despite the bad blood, many analysts suspect Prokhorov is actually a puppet controlled by Russia's ruling elite. His "Evolution, not revolution" agenda, they say, is designed to attract dissatisfied voters from the middle class and channel their frustration in a controlled manner.
The billionaire businessman has pledged to improve media freedom and privatize the state-owned television channel, for example. He has also promised to free incarcerated oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky - an outspoken critic of the Kremlin - and stressed the importance of direct elections for governors and mayors.
"I still don't know if Prokhorov is mounting a true challenge, or if the Kremlin is organizing both the election and the candidates participating in it," said Andreas Schockenhoff, who coordinates German-Russian intersocietal cooperation at the German Foreign Office.
Prokhorov himself says anyone who doubts his intentions has the wrong end of the stick: "I'm not a project of the Kremlin. The Kremlin is my project."
Some 50,000 people attended an anti-Putin demonstration in Moscow last month
Prokhorov does appear to be something of an establishment insider, if his curriculum vitae is any indication.
As the son of a high-ranking sports official and a graduate of the elite Moscow Finance Institute, Prokhorov was well-placed to capitalize on the turbulent years that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He made his fortune in the banking and resource sectors, most notably as the director of Onexim Bank, one of Russia's biggest private financial groups, and the head of Norilskij Nickel.
Prokhorov is an avid sports enthusiast. In 2009 he bought an 80 percent stake in the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team. According to Forbes magazine, his net worth in 2011 was estimated at US$18 billion (14.2 billion euros).
Prokhorov himself dodges questions about his wealth with the nonchalance of a playboy. "If you know how much money you have, you're not a real billionaire," he once said in an interview.
While money is no issue for Mikhail Prokhorov, however, his lack of political experience is.
Recent polls show support for Prokhorov is very low - just 3 or 4 percent compared with Putin's 42 percent.
If Putin fails to secure 50 percent of the first-round vote, his most likely contender in the run-off would be the communist leader Gennady Zyuganov - not Prokhorov.
Author: Roman Goncharenko / sje
Editor: Gabriel Borrud