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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?

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Kudrin's ties to Putin leave questions about his ability to play a key role in any new political force, particularly after the protests on Saturday featured frequent chants of "Russia without Putin" and "Down with Putin".

Leaders of the largest protests included liberal opposition politicians who were barred from running in the election because the state has denied them registration.

Kudrin, 51, was finance minister thoughout Putin's 2000-2008 presidency and remained in the post when Putin became prime minister and steered Medvedev into the presidency because he faced a legal bar on a third successive term.

Putin's plan to return to the presidency and make Medvedev prime minister, unveiled in September, deepened feelings of many Russians that the future had been decided without their input.

The Duma election increased a feeling of disenfranchisement but the scale of the discontent and the protests appears to have caught the authorities off guard. The protests were organised on social media, beyond the Kremlin's control.

"Of course the Kremlin wants to retain control and channel the energy that spilled out into the street on Saturday into a project that will be not be completely unpredictable," said Maria Lipman, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

But she said whether or not Kudrin was acting in concert with Putin and the Kremlin, the election and the protests had loosened the government's grip on politics.

"The political monopoly that the Kremlin has got used to will gradually wash away, and even agreements with the Kremlin will not mean unconditional loyalty or Kremlin control over the political process," she said.


In the interview, Kudrin said he would not consider himself and Putin "like-minded", but he steered clear of strong criticism and said Putin had done a good job softening the blow of the global financial crisis on Russia.

Instead, he targeted United Russia and the alleged electoral fraud.

"Even with numerous violations in the election, people's real preferences still came to light. United Russia is losing support," he said. "The ruling party will have to compromise with other parties."

Opposition leaders have vowed to hold big new protests on Dec. 24, hoping to increase pressure on Putin as the March 4 presidential vote approaches. Polls show Putin is Russia's most popular politician, but his approval ratings have fallen.

Medvedev said on his Facebook site on Sunday that he had ordered an investigation into the electoral fraud allegations.

But neither he not Putin has given any indication they will accede to the protesters' demands for a new election. Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said on Monday that he saw no grounds for a recount or a new vote.

Kudrin called for a recount "in certain polling districts and even regions" and said the Kremlin should consider dismissing the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov -- one of the protesters' other demands.

"If this is not done, the next elections will be conducted in a slipshod manner," he said, adding that he was talking about all future elections including the presidential vote.

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