Tycoon to challenge Putin for president

ONE of Russia’s richest tycoons and the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Mikhail Prokhorov said he will run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March presidential election.

Prokhorov has been cautious not to cross Putin’s path in the past, but the billionaire may pose a serious challenge to Putin, whose authority has been dented by alleged widespread fraud during Russia’s December 4 parliamentary election.

Putin’s party only won about 48% of that vote, compared to 64% four years ago, and the fraud allegations have allowed opposition parties to successfully mount massive anti-Putin protests in Russia.

President Dmitry Medvedev has promised the alleged vote fraud will be investigated. But Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov, predicted the probe will show that little vote fraud occurred and it had no effect on the outcome of the ballot.

“If you take all the cases of these alleged violations or whatever was published online, the total will be less than 1% of the overall number of votes,” Peskov said.

“And even hypothetically speaking, if they are all appealed in court, it will in no way affect the legitimacy of the election.”

Peskov’s comment signalled that Putin — who served as Russia’s president in 2000-2008 and only became prime minister because of term limits — is holding firm, despite the protests, which have been the largest here since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.

On Saturday tens of thousands of people in Moscow and smaller numbers in more than 60 other cities protested election fraud and called for an end to Putin’s rule.

“The society is waking up,” Prokhorov said at his news conference in Moscow.

He will have a good chance of appealing to Russia’s growing opposition, which includes prosperous middle-class residents, many of whom are angered by Putin’s bid to reclaim the presidency.

Asked whether he is going to join another opposition rally planned later this month in Moscow, Prokhorov wouldn’t say, but he added that he agrees with many of the anti-Putin slogans that were shouted out during Saturday’s protests.

Prokhorov’s presidential bid follows his botched performance in the parliamentary race, when he formed a liberal party under tacit support of the Kremlin, then abandoned the project under what he called Kremlin pressure.

He has blamed Vladislav Surkov, a presidential de- puty chief of staff, for staging a mutiny within the party’s ranks. “I will solve that problem by becoming his boss,” Prokhorov said when he was asked if Surkov could pose obstacles to his presidential bid.

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