Russia's third-richest man, industrialist Mikhail Prokhorov, threw a wrench into the country's finely tuned system of "managed democracy" Thursday by abruptly abandoning the political party that he took over just three months ago.
The unexpected exit of a rising political star appears to be the result of a bitter split within Mr. Prokhorov's party that the billionaire oligarch blames on Kremlin meddling.
Until recently Mr. Prokhorov, who is worth $18 billion according to Forbes Magazine, had been best known in the US as owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team. In Russia, he's been constantly in the headlines as the country's most eligible bachelor, an amateur athlete who posts videos on YouTube of his jet-ski stunts, and the somewhat quixotic promoter of electric cars.
In June, Prokhorov took over a moribund pro-business party, Right Cause, and announced his intention to turn it into a viable political vehicle that could hurdle the 7 percent vote barrier to gain admission to the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, in elections slated for Dec. 4. He was awarded lavish coverage on state-run TV, and billboards sprouted everywhere with his face and chosen slogan: "Strength lies in power. The one who is right is stronger."
He talked about becoming prime minister if Right Cause did well in the Duma polls, and hinted that he might even run for president in elections next March.
Since the last Russian oligarch who dabbled in politics against the Kremlin's will, oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, is now enduring his ninth year in prison, it was widely assumed that Prokhorov was acting in concert with the Kremlin's chief ideologist Vladislav Surkov, architect of Russia's tightly controlled electoral system.
On Thursday, Prokhorov admitted that he had met regularly with Mr. Surkov, but insisted that "Surkov never offered me this post to head the party. It was my decision" to get into politics.
Experts say that Surkov probably saw Right Cause as a "safe" way to draw off the protest votes of liberal-minded Russians, after the Kremlin denied registration, along with any chance to participate in elections, to the People's Freedom Party.
The People's Freedom Party is an independent liberal group led by former prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, former independent Duma deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, and chess champion Garry Kasparov.
But all that screeched to a halt Thursday as Right Cause's election congress dissolved into two competing factions, and Prokhorov defiantly declared independence from the Kremlin.
He blamed Surkov for orchestrating a "mutiny" in the party, and stacking the congress with "counterfeit delegates," because Prokhorov had refused to give the Kremlin a veto over who could be a party leader or Duma candidate.
Prokhorov said the trigger for the spat was his insistence on retaining Yevgeny Roizman, a controversial anti-drug campaigner, in his leadership circle.
But experts say he probably irritated Surkov by moving his party toward the popular center-left positions that are the political turf of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, the Kremlin-backed behemoth that currently controls two-thirds of the Duma and most regional legislatures in Russia.
"The president's administration [whose deputy chief of staff is Surkov] seized our mandate commission, all sorts of strange people appeared on our delegate list, and this theater of the absurd began," Prokhorov told a group of journalists today. "I decided not to take part in this puppet party ... Surkov acts in his own interests, he [misinforms] the leaders of our state. I'm going to meet with Putin and [President Dmitry] Medvedev and tell them how I was pressured. Then I'll draw my own conclusions."
Russia's 'managed democracy'
The blowup has stunned many Russians, who've grown used to the carefully stage-managed politics of the Putin era, in which almost nothing unpredictable ever happens.
"It's an unscripted moment, and an invigorating one," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "Suddenly politics are real, exciting. For the first time in years we have something to talk about."
Prokhorov insists that he's not interested in going into opposition. "I don't want to unite with people against something, I'm ready to unite in favor of something. I'm a creator, not a destroyer."
But he also puts forward an explicit challenge to Putin, whose main appeal to conservative Russians is that he ushered in an era of stability, which makes up in predictability what it lacks in democratic freedoms.
"The [Putin] stabilization has exhausted itself," Prokhorov said. "The world is changing. The country needs aggressive development."
Sasha Lyubimov, one of Russia's top TV personalities and long-time friend of Prokhorov, says that while Prokhorov may have wrecked his immediate political chances by breaking dramatically with the Kremlin, he has set himself up for political success in the long run.
"We are people of ideal intentions," Mr. Lyubimov, a leader of Right Cause, says. "We've built successful businesses, raised families, and now we want to make some real changes. We're tired of this unchanging political system, where a small group maintains a monopoly over the media and stifles political debate. We don't want to be part of the puppet show, we want to change it. We are in this for the next 10 to 15 years, and we're not afraid."
Poised to return?
Another celebrity supporter of Prokhorov is Alla Pugacheva, Russia's best-known pop diva, who famously refused to join the Communist Party in Soviet times and was protected from the consequences by her vast public popularity.
She transfixed Russians Thursday by publicly declaring she was finally ready to join a party, if it were led by Prokhorov. "He sees people as the point of political power, and not a means to it," Ms. Pugacheva said. "They may make obstacles for us, but they can no longer prevent us from thinking independently and acting freely for the sake of our Motherland."
But former Prime Minister Kasyanov, of the banned People's Freedom Party, warns that Prokhorov will have some hard choices to make in the next few days, and could well end up following Mr. Khodorkovsky into a Siberian penal colony if he isn't careful.
"All registered political parties today are orchestrated by Mr. Surkov, who sets the rules and limits their roles," says Mr. Kasyanov. "Prokhorov tried to escape from that position and was immediately punished [by the loss of his party]. He made the right decision today, but now he'll be forced to choose between returning to the role of puppet or engaging in real opposition politics ... .
"That can be very dangerous for him, as Khodorkovsky's example shows. But if he's brave enough to fight with this regime, we'll be ready to sit down and talk with him."