MOSCOW, March 1 (Reuters) - He has held a basketball clinic for kids, rapped on late-night TV and brought his big sister into his bid to challenge Prime Minister Vladimir Putin for Russia’s presidency on Sunday.
Billionaire tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov has conducted a campaign worthy of his unique position in the race: The youngest of the five men on the ballot by almost a generation, at 46, he is the only first-time candidate in a field of familiar faces many Russians would not mind seeing out of politics for good.
Bearing a message that Russia needs rapid change, he is also the only candidate who comes close to catching the spirit of the tens of thousands of people who have taken to the streets this winter in the biggest opposition protests of Putin’s 12-year rule.
But in an election Putin seems certain to win, Prokhorov is hobbled by suspicion he was only allowed to run to lend legitimacy to the vote and to divert anti-Putin sentiment into a safe channel.
Sparked by allegations of widespread fraud in a December parliamentary election, the protests have been fuelled by the fear, strongest among upwardly mobile urbanites, that Putin - who could rule until 2024 if he wins two terms - will shun reform and mire Russia in Soviet-style stagnation.
“The risk is very simple: Vladimir Putin is for stabilisation, but this means the stabilisation of poverty and lagging behind,” Prokhorov told a news conference on Tuesday, flanked by eight advisers as he explained aspects of his program.
A vocal supporter of business and attentive to detail on issues of vital importance to Russians, such as housing, education and healthcare, Prokhorov has some appeal.
“He is new and he has serious ideas,” said Inna Korabelnikova, 35, an office manager in Moscow.
Apart from Prokhorov, “the other candidates are all campaigning on populism, and they just cannot compete against Putin,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “Putin is a populist with control of the state coffers, while the others are populists without money.”
Prokhorov has plenty of money - and therein lies the other big obstacle to a realistic presidential bid, now or ever.
Ranked Russia’s third-richest man by Forbes magazine with a fortune of $18 billion, Prokhorov’s business empire ranges from gold and aluminium assets in remote Siberia to the New Jersey Nets basketball team in the United States.
“He is rich - and for that the majority of Russians hate him a priori,” said Petrov.
A February survey by independent pollster Levada Center showed Prokhorov had doubled his support since December, with six percent of voters planning to vote for him. He came fourth out of five behind Putin, Communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.
That may be enough for Prokhorov, who has made it clear he sees the election as a stepping stone to a lasting role in politics, and, weeks before the presidential vote, announced plans to create a new party.
A ticker on Prokhorov’s campaign website showed more than 44,000 people have expressed interest in joining the party, which he said would seek to “unite civil society” and reform Russia from the ground up.
“Our citizens want to live in a different country,” he said on Tuesday, adding that his party would help make that happen.
“A new president - a new Russia,” the main page of his campaign website reads, next to a photo showing the 204 cm (6-foot-8), rail-thin Prokhorov towering above a crowd.
After the election, however, it will almost certainly still be Putin’s Russia, and analysts say Putin will use the tycoon, and his party, to defuse some of the tension in society that is driving the protests.
Putin could cite Prokhorov’s calls for reform in order to justify painful economic actions after making a plethora of spending pledges during the campaign himself for example.
Prokhorov’s background means Putin could do that with little fear of the tycoon challenging him back.
He is one of the “oligarchs” who made fortunes by snapping up assets in a controversial wave of post-Soviet privatisations in the 1990s, buying Arctic mining giant Norilsk Nickel with another businessman at a knock-down price.
In a country where business and politics are deeply intertwined, Prokhorov’s business empire could be used as a leash to keep him in line.
He sold out of Norilsk for an estimated $14 billion but owns a 17 percent stake in RUSAL, the world’s largest aluminium producer, and a 37 percent stake in Russia’s top gold producer, Polyus Gold.
For many Russians, his name is associated with the French ski resort of Courchevel, because of an incident in 2007 when the French police suspected he was arranging prostitutes for guests at the Alpine haven favoured by Russia’s super-rich and detained him. He denied any wrongdoing and was later cleared.
A bachelor long known more as a playboy than a politician, Prokhorov has tried to tone down his hard-partying image for the presidential campaign.
A pamphlet full of stories portraying him as a smart, resourceful but more-or-less regular product of a Moscow upbringing in the last decade of the Soviet Union features photos of a uniformed Prokhorov riding a tank and offering a crisp salute during his Soviet-era military service.
To the sounds of soft music in a video clip on his website, Prokhorov’s older sister Irina, who co-founded his charitable foundation and advises him on cultural and arts policies, cites three reasons why Russians should vote for him. Number three: He’ll settle down and start a family.
“Vote for Mikhail. Because (if he wins) he will certainly get married. After all, the country needs a first lady - and I need nieces and nephews.” (Editing by Douglas Busvine and Andrew Osborn)