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Prokhorov May Be Pro-Business Candidate for President

Mikhail Prokhorov, Russia’s third-richest man, may be planning to seek the presidency on a pro-business ticket as President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin delay a decision on which of them will run.

The 46-year-old owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team will pursue the chairmanship of Pravoye Delo, or Right Cause, and plans to consider whether to run for president sometime after the party’s annual meeting later this year, Prokhorov told Bloomberg and state TV yesterday at Vnukovo Airport near Moscow.

While Prokhorov may help boost the fortunes of Right Cause, he isn’t likely to be an active politician, said Roland Nash, chief investment strategist at Verno Capital, a Moscow hedge fund that manages about $140 million. The party was founded in 2008 to unite those who value the market economy, human rights and democracy, according to its website.

Prokhorov is “in a relatively unusual position: he’s on good terms with the party of power and with the main leaders of Pravoye Delo,” Nash said. “He is therefore likely to be an acceptable face of the liberal right. Mikhail Prokhorov is not a billionaire who likes to take unnecessary risks.”

Prokhorov, with a fortune that Forbes puts at $18 billion, said he hasn’t discussed his interest in the party chairmanship with either Medvedev or Putin. Dmitry Orlov, an analyst at the Moscow-based Agency for Political and Economic Communications, which advises the government, said it’s clear the move is supported by both.

7 Percent Goal

The party will compete in December parliamentary elections against Putin’s United Russia, which holds 315 of 450 seats in the State Duma and has about 2 million members.

Right Cause, with 65,000 members, is targeting at least 7 percent of the vote, the minimum needed to gain representation in parliament, co-Chairman Leonid Gozman said by phone.

“I certainly have a program, but I won’t comment until I’m elected at the Pravoye Delo congress,” Prokhorov said. The billionaire said he wants a free hand to bring in new people and may change the party’s name.

His statement comes 10 days after Putin announced plans to bring together business, trade union, women’s and youth groups under the banner of United Russia as support for the party wanes. Medvedev on May 13 warned against an “excessive concentration of power.”

“Chronologically it was the right step,” Igor Yurgens, who heads the Institute of Contemporary Development, set up by Medvedev, said of Prokhorov’s move. “Otherwise, people would have had the impression that it will again be a one-party system in the country.”

Putin, Medvedev

Putin, 58, handed the presidency to Medvedev, a 45-year-old lawyer from his hometown of St. Petersburg, in 2008, after serving two consecutive terms, the most allowed by the constitution. Neither has ruled out running in 2012.

United Russia’s approval rating fell to 43 percent last month, from 51 percent in December and 64 percent in the 2007 election, according to the Public Opinion Foundation in Moscow.

Prokhorov said his decision to seek the leadership of Right Cause was prompted by a “flurry” of calls from friends and business leaders who heard the party was interested in him.

“When it first emerged that I was being considered for this position, to be frank, I was absolutely unprepared and thought it was a joke,” Prokhorov said. Then, he said, friends reminded him of his favorite saying: “Who if not us?”

Consolidating Forces

The billionaire owns stakes in aluminum producer United Co. Rusal, gold miner OAO Polyus Gold, investment bank Renaissance Capital and the RBC television channel.

Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a sociologist who studies Russia’s elites and is a member of United Russia, said Prokhorov’s announcement is a preparatory move by business leaders and officials in the Kremlin to build a strong right-leaning party that may be headed by Medvedev in the future.

“It is necessary for someone to consolidate the right forces so the party is capable of reaching the 7 percent threshold and creating a fully fledged faction in the Duma,” Kryshtanovskaya said by phone. “Only then would it be possible to propose Medvedev to head this party.”

Prokhorov said his political program is based on his experience as a banker, chief executive officer and member of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, or RSPP, the nation’s big-business lobby. The former Norilsk Nickel CEO took over that role at Polyus in December.

Trust of Electorate

“Current political structures have no personalities that the right-minded electorate will trust,” Alexander Shokhin, head of the Moscow-based RSPP, said by phone. “The current system doesn’t allow for those 15 percent of the right-minded electorate to be represented in the Duma.”

Unlike 2003, when billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky was jailed while challenging Putin politically, Russia’s leadership understands the need for alternative candidates and ideas and it’s ready to concede 7 percent of the vote to a new party, said Dmitry Oreshkin, an independent political analyst in Moscow.

“The power vertical that Putin built has come to a logical end and is now becoming dangerous for the business environment,” Oreshkin said.

Representatives for both Medvedev and Putin declined to comment on Prokhorov’s political ambitions.

Prokhorov “won’t be able to promote any serious political initiatives without contradicting Putinism,” said Boris Nemtsov, a Putin opponent who co-founded the Solidarity movement and served as a first deputy prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin.

“Prokhorov is a talented guy, creative, with money and he can think up something,” Nemtsov said by phone. “But as soon as the party becomes successful it will become Putin’s enemy.”

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