Mikhail Prokhorov, a low-key billionaire, takes to Russian stump

Microphone in hand, Mikhail Prokhorov doesn’t get angry, passionate, rousing, funny or stem-winding. The billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets speaks in a soothing baritone and has barely an unkind word for his opponents in next month’s presidential election, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Competition, respect and a balanced government: That’s the heart of his long-shot pitch. It’s what Russia sorely lacks and must acquire, he says, as if this is all just common sense but has somehow been overlooked for the past 10 years.

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Players in Russia’s presidential election
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Players in Russia’s presidential election

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Prokhorov, who made his money in nickel, aluminum and gold, has flown to Siberia for the day, to the country’s third-largest city, part of his last-minute bid for the top job. As one of Russia’s richest men, he’s challenging Russia’s most powerful man.

And that man, Putin, has acknowledged that the election might go to a second round — though Prokhorov still has an uphill climb if he’s to be a part of it.

“The government has to work for the people, not the reverse,” Prokhorov says.

It sounds like an applause line, and he uses it often, but it sails right past the thousand curious residents who have packed the enormous Mayakovsky Cinema to hear him speak. However, when he talks about keeping Novosibirsk tax money at work in Novosibirsk instead of shipping it off to Moscow, the hall erupts in applause.

The fabulously wealthy, world-traveling business titan says he wants a “democracy of taxpayers” instead of a corrupt culture of chiseling and extortion. He promises to dismantle what Putin calls the “vertical of power,” under which all authority is concentrated in the Kremlin, by creating an independent judiciary and restoring elections for local officials. He says he is for competition in every field — politics, business, science, what have you.

Prokhorov says the prime minister and parliament have to be a strong counterweight to the president. He says his first act as president would be to pardon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil magnate who was destroyed and imprisoned by Putin, and offer him the prime minister’s post. (Prokhorov fondly calls him “Misha” and a friend.) He says the top 200 officials in government, and their families, would have to sell their business holdings. He says he would sell off state-owned television.

If all this was to happen, it would fundamentally reshape the country. But first, Prokhorov has to convince a skeptical public that he’s for real. An oligarch with no political experience, he’s asking Russians to trust him with the presidency. The rich, as a rule, aren’t popular. But judging by the reaction of those who turn out at the Mayakovsky and sit through two hours of Q&A, they’re at least willing to give him a hearing.

A questioner asks whether he would take a post in government if he doesn’t win — which seems very likely, because Putin still has huge advantages heading into the election. It depends, he says. But his main goal at the moment is to force a second round, by keeping Putin under 50 percent and emerging as the second-place finisher.

Three other candidates, from established parties, are in the mix, and the Communist Gennady Zyuganov is the most likely runner-up. But he’s been around for 20 years, and Prokhorov is betting that Russia could be ready for a fresh face.

Prokhorov says he fully supports the demonstration to be held Saturday in Moscow by activists opposed to Putin, though at the same time he can’t hide his annoyance at being refused a speaking role. The organizers have tried to steer clear of seeming to endorse any candidate.

Earlier political foray

In an interview, he promises he’ll be out of business for good. “When I become president,” he says, “I will sell all my assets and I will pay all the taxes, and I will give more than a half to charity.”

He denies the widely rumored story that he’s a spoiler, recruited by the Kremlin to split the opposition. An earlier foray into politics this past summer, when he took over a moribund political party, was suspect from the start — but he later stomped out of that arrangement, complaining that the Kremlin was trying to control him.

No, he says, he owes Putin nothing.

With political ferment stirring for the first time this century, Prokhorov, 46, decided in December to jump into the race. He says he’s made enough money — though Forbes estimates that his fortune dropped from $18 billion to less than $13 billion in 2011 as Russian stocks took a beating — and now wants to devote himself to his country.

“Listening to him, you want to believe him,” says Svetlana Makurin, whose husband owns a household chemicals company here with 300 employees. The Makurins are typical of those who lately have started to call for political change — well off, insulted by what they see as the arrogance of authority, and uneasy about the future. They’ve been looking for ways to invest their money — in the United States.

“These aren’t understandable times,” Makurin says. “He gets it. He’s the only candidate to vote for. We have to vote against Putin.”

‘Smart and thinking’

In last month’s parliamentary elections, Putin’s United Russia party led in Novosibirsk with 30 percent of the vote — typical for larger Russian cities. Prokhorov’s campaign is pitched at well-educated urban professionals. His supporters, he says, are “smart and thinking people.”

While amassing his wealth, the athletic and unmarried Prokhorov liked to party — and was arrested at a French ski resort in 2007 on suspicion that he had hired prostitutes for his guests. (No charges were brought.) That might explain his demeanor on the campaign trail: a sober gray suit, a well-modulated voice, an occasional winsome smile.

“I haven’t found my true love yet,” he says in answer to a question from the audience at the theater, “but I believe in love.”

Russian campaigns tend not to feature photo ops or rope lines or big retinues or rock bands or large polling operations or much excitement, and Prokhorov’s is no different.

During a much smaller session with scientific researchers, he doesn’t tour a lab or peer through a microscope or don special glasses as an American candidate would. He merely sits down behind a desk for a conversation with two dozen invited guests. Prokhorov is 6 feet 8 inches tall, but much of his height is in his legs, so when he sits he doesn’t tower over everyone else.

Anastasia Lagunova, 32, who works in IT support, can’t shake her belief that all of politics in Russia — even the street protests of December — is part of some big charade. And that goes for Prokhorov, too. “Business and politics here,” she says, “all come together in one place.”

But idealism is not totally dead in Novosibirsk. Three issues have energized activists here, says Alexei Mazur, a political scientist: bad roads, a lack of decent nursery schools, and terrible health care. It has reached the point, he says, that local officials have finally acknowledged the problems but point out that Moscow controls all the spending and decision making.

Prokhorov’s campaign pitch, with its emphasis on decentralizing power, gets at precisely that issue. “But no one in Russia would believe one word of any program,” Mazur says. “Experience in Russia has taught us that.”

Prokhorov says that, no matter what happens, he intends to organize a liberal, free-market-oriented political party after the March election. “We can’t be afraid of competition,” says the man who made a fortune in metals monopolies. “The only way out is through hard work.”

 
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