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Russia's Prokhorov Can't Expect To Beat Putin. So Why Is He Still In The Race?

As the Russian presidential elections approach, there is still little doubt Vladimir Putin will win. Billionaire and basketball team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, however, continues to keep his hat in the ring. Why? Russia’s Kommersant offers a few explanation

Mikhail Prokhorov in December 2011 (moscowprotest)
Mikhail Prokhorov in December 2011 (moscowprotest)
Maria Luisa Tirmaste

MOSCOW – Billionaire and Russian presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov is running on a platform called "a real future," through which he spells out his dream of seeing Russia governed by "real politicians." For that reason he would like to limit the election of presidents and governors to no more than two terms in their lifetime. If elected, the New Jersey Nets basketball team owner would limit his own time as president to four years.

In response to the recent protests that have erupted in Moscow and elsewhere across Russia, Prokhorov is proposing a series of voting reforms. He calls for direct elections of mayors and governors and wants to change the elections rules so that parties which receive less than 3% of the vote can still have representation in the Duma, Russia's parliament.

"The most important part of my program is quick and high-quality reforms," says Prokhorov. "Our country is developing very slowly at the moment. That is leading us to lose our global competitiveness. I want to live in a Russia that leads the world, not one that is slinking along with its tail between its legs."

Prokhorov promises amnesty to those who have been convicted of economic crimes, and would change the laws on government purchases to give all gas producers equal access to government contracts, the transport system and export markets. He would divide the national company Gasprom into several competing companies, and would privatize many government controlled corporations in the hopes of closing the deficit in the Russian Pension Fund. In addition, Prokhorov proposes several tax and budgetary reforms.

"My program is still dynamic, and could still be changed, both before and after the elections. I want this platform to become the program for development in this country after the elections," Prokhorov explains in an interview with Kommersant.

Describing it as both "liberal" and "European," Boric Nemtsov, the co-chairman of the opposition People's Freedom party, says that the businessman's platform is "absolutely the most progressive of all the platforms." But are his proposals for real, or are they simply propaganda? That question will continue to be posed, says Nemtsov, as long as Prokhorov refuses to "tell the truth about how he became a candidate for presidency and what kind of agreement he has with Putin."

Fighting for fourth place

Political scientist Evgeniy Minchenko, for one, has trouble taking the proposals at face value. "The program is written in such a way that there is no way that anyone is planning to actually carry it through," he says. Minchenko thinks Prokhorov's whole campaign is functioning within a framework approved and agreed upon by Vladimir Putin's team.

The political scientist notes, for example, that Prokhorov is not actively campaigning outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, even in regions where he would have a good chance of at least coming in second to Putin. Minchenko thinks that Prokhorov was told not to campaign in the regions where he could steal votes from Putin.

Politicians and experts alike agree that 10% of the vote on March 4 would be a very good result for Prokhorov. According to Nemtsov, Prokhorov's results will depend largely on the amount of money he is willing to spend on the campaign.

"Now is an important moment for Prokhorov. He is fighting for fourth place," says political scientist and United Russia member Aleksei Chesnakov. "If he manages to come in fourth and to associate himself with the right people, then he has a chance at a political career."

According to Minchenko, if Prokhorov comes in with around 5% of the vote, he will have to team up with other politicians in the future. But if he comes closer to 10%, he could start his own political party. Even Prokhorov has spoken about the possibility of building a political party on the basis of his presidential run. "I have a platform, I have supporters and will get even more in the future," Prokhorov said. Whatever party Prokhorov does start, it will certainly be after the presidential elections.

Looking to the future

Prokhorov could be playing the long-term game, and laying the groundwork for the next parliamentary elections, Minchenko says. But if that is his strategy, he will need to concentrate on the areas outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, which he has not managed to do yet. "And he has not shown himself to be a very sharp public politician, nor a very good organizer," Minchenko adds.

Chesnakov says that if Prokhorov wants to stay in the game for the long-term, he is going to have to transform himself from a lone-ranger type politician to a leader of a team of strong politicians. Prokhorov himself has said that if he wins at least 10% of the vote on March 4, he will start his own party, but if he gets less than that, he will try to integrate himself into a previously existing political party.

Another possible option for Prokhorov would be to work with the current political power. Ex-Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said the wealthy candidate could, at least theoretically, become vice-prime minister. Minchenko agrees, saying that if Prokhorov strictly follows the agreement with Putin, then Putin may name him vice-prime minister, also known as the "minister of unpopular reforms."

If that's the case, "he will lose all of this popularity within a year, "says Minchenko. "Just look at what happened to Sergei Tigipko in Ukraine. He came in third in the presidential elections, and then was given the post of vice prime minister. He oversaw several unpopular reforms, and nothing became of his political party."

Prokhorov insists he will not consider taking a position under Putin, and says there have been no discussions of that nature with the ruling party. And regardless of the election result, the billionaire businessman says he will stick to politics. "After the elections I will be focusing exclusively on politics," says Prokhorov. "I will build a political party. For me, politics is a long-term project."

Read the original article in Russian

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