Prokhorov brings a considerable fortune to his task, as well as a reasonably high profile. At 46, he presents a modern outlook and would seem to be on the same wavelength as many of the middle-class Russians who have become disenchanted with Putin and are calling for his defeat in the March presidential election.
First, though, Prokhorov will have to prove himself. The tens of thousands of protesters who have come out on the streets of Russia in the past week are supporting a cause, not following a leader.
That cause is promoting clean elections and, beyond that, a clean and representative government. The most direct way to achieve those results would be to beat Putin in the upcoming election — but that’s still not likely. Prokhorov’s announcement notwithstanding, no single man or woman has emerged as the obvious challenger.
The opposition forces — which embrace everyone from nationalists flying the czarist flag to communists with the hammer and sickle to liberals intent on individual rights — are deeply riven, even now. They are bound only by their desire to get rid of the system that Putin erected.
New faces, many from a younger generation than the current crop of politicians, are gaining prominence. The jailed blogger Alexei Navalny, 35, has become a hero to his readers. But neither he nor Prokhorov — nor anyone else — has demonstrated the authority or character to unite the broad array of protesters and steer the movement to victory.
Some here argue that three months is time enough to sort out a campaign against Putin. Others say the protesters are really looking beyond March, conceding that Putin is the likely winner but hoping to lay the groundwork for deeper change later on.
Where Russia goes from here, and how, is a question being asked in Washington, too. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has scheduled a hearing Wednesday on the state of human rights and rule of law in Russia. The parliamentary elections and the subsequent protests are sure to be part of the testimony.
On Monday, Prokhorov said he plans to campaign on a platform of economic development, which would entail weaning Russia off its financial dependence on oil revenue and strengthening the middle class.
Prokhorov’s appearance coincided with the publication of an interview with Alexei Kudrin, Putin’s well-regarded former finance minister, in the newspaper Vedomosti. Kudrin advocated a sensible liberal opposition to Putin’s United Russia party, which could dovetail with Prokhorov’s plans. Kudrin had a falling out with Putin in September, when he left the government.