Russian billionaire to challenge Putin party

by Stuart Williams, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jun 25 2011 10:07 PM | Updated as of Jun 26 2011 06:07 AM

MOSCOW, Russia - Billionaire oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov Saturday won the leadership of a Russian pro-reform party, setting the goal of challenging the dominance of Vladimir Putin's ruling faction United Russia.

Delegates elected Prokhorov unopposed as the new leader of the Pravoe Delo (Just Cause) party at an extraordinary congress in Moscow marked by bold ambitions the businessman would turn it into a major political force.

Just two delegates voted against Prokhorov's candidacy, with 107 in favour, according to the results of the secret ballot announced by party officials in a session broadcast live on state television.

In a speech to the congress, Prokhorov set the goal of taking the party into parliament in December polls and eventually knocking United Russia off its supreme perch.

"We must act like a responsible party of power," Prokhorov told the party congress. "We need to get into parliament. In the foreseeable future, as the number two party. Then as number one."

He took clear aim at United Russia, which dominates the State Duma lower house and is largely untroubled by three weak opposition parties.

"Do we have multi-party politics (in Russia)? Of course we don't. There need to be at least two parties of power," said Prokhorov.

"Any political monopoly is our main opponent. It's even clear in school text books that a monopoly is the enemy of all development."

His election is the first time a top businessman has entered politics since the arrest in 2003 of oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who supporters say was punished for daring to finance opposition to strongman Putin.

The party did its best to create a snazzy atmosphere at the congress, plunging the hall into darkness as every vote was taken and a clock loudly ticking as delegates placed their votes.

A vote also had to be taken on fast-tracking Prokhorov into the party as he was not already a member. Until now, the party has been led by a muddy multi-person leadership and failed to make an impact on Russian society.

Promoting an agenda of radical economic reform, Prokhorov said: "Everyone is tired of slogans. And we all must answer one simple Russian question: What is to be done?"

Prokhorov said this month that Russia's mode of management over the last decade has "now exhausted itself" and has also issued a rare expression of sympathy from a top figure for the plight of Khodorkovsky.

But analysts point out that President Dmitry Medvedev seems more than happy with Prokhorov's involvement in politics and he has yet to offer any direct criticism of Putin or the Kremlin.

According to the Vedomosti business daily, Prokhorov met individually with both Putin and Medvedev before agreeing to take on the party role.

Significantly, the congress was carried live on Russia's state news channel, coverage unthinkable for more explicitly anti-Kremlin politicians like ex-minister Boris Nemtsov or former chess champion Garry Kasparov.

Prokhorov indicated he had little time for such figures and said he did not even want his new party to be known as an opposition force.

"I suggest that we exclude the word opposition from our lexicon.

"For our citizens, the word opposition is long associated not with political parties but marginal groups who have long ago lost touch with reality."

Prokhorov, 46, was in 2011 rated as Russia's third richest man by Forbes Magazine, with an estimated fortune of $18 billion (12.7 billion euros). He heads the Onexim group, an investment firm with big interests in mining, new technologies, media and banking.

Over 2 meters (6-and-a-half feet) tall, Prokhorov has a dizzying array of interests, ranging from ownership of the U.S. New Jersey Nets basketball team to masterminding production of Russia's first hybrid car, the Yo-mobile.