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Vladimir Putin faces new challenger in Russian presidential race

Will Russian billionaire and New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov team up with Alexei Kudrin to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia's presidential election?

By Steve GuttermanReuters / December 12, 2011

Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia's richest tycoons and New Jersey Nets basketball team owner, announces his candidacy to run against Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March 2012 presidential election.

(AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

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Moscow

A longtime ally of Vladimir Putin called  for the creation of a liberal party to fill a void in Russian politics exposed by mass protests against the prime minister's 12-year rule, and cast himself as its potential leader.

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Also on Monday, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov said that he would run for the Russian presidency and create a new political party.

"I made probably the most serious decision in my life. I am running for president,” said Prokhorov at a Moscow press conference. He did not rule out the possibility of uniting with former Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin.

Kudrin's proposal create a new liberal party, if it gains support, could offer a way for Putin to channel discontent and reduce the threat posed by the biggest opposition protests since he took power in 1999.

But Kudrin also warned that the legitimacy of a presidential election Putin is expected to win in March would be undermined by any failure to address protesters' allegations of fraud in a parliamentary election on Dec. 4. That poll, he said, had shown the need for a strong liberal alternative to the ruling party.

"Today it is clear that this deficit is even more dire than we could have imagined," said Kudrin, a fiscal hawk forced out in September after a dispute with President Dmitry Medvedev over lavish state military spending plans.

"Today one can say that the demand for the creation of such a structure is so high that it will certainly begin to be created," Kudrin said in an interview published by the financial daily Vedomosti.

Tens of thousands of Russians protested on Saturday over the Dec. 4 election they said was rigged in favour of United Russia, the party Putin has used as an instrument of his rule.

Voters vented frustration with the entrenched ruling party by sharply reducing its majority in the State Duma lower house. But the protesters say even United Russia's official result, just under 50 percent of the vote, was inflated by fraud.

Many protesters in the diverse crowds across Russia on Saturday were representatives of a new middle class of moderately wealthy professionals who are unhappy with a tightly controlled political system dominated by a single man.

"The process of the consolidation of liberal and democratic forces will now go forward. I am absolutely certain of this, and I myself am ready to support this," Kudrin said, adding that it was too early to talk about a potential leader.

Aware of growing discontent among politically savvy professionals eager for a stronger voice, the Kremlin turned to Kudrin early this year with a proposal that he lead a liberal, pro-business party that could counterbalance United Russia.

He rejected the offer, and an effort to turn the small Right Cause party into a significant force collapsed in acrimony between the Kremlin and the man chosen to lead it, billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

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