Can Russian billionaire Prokhorov beat Putin?

Peter van Dyk Mar 2, 2012

Jeremy Hobson: Russians will vote on Sunday in the country’s presidential election. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is leading in the polls and three of his challengers have lost to him in the past. The fourth is Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest men and the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team.

Peter Van Dyk reports from Moscow.

Peter van Dyk: On a freezing Moscow day, folk musicians belt out traditional songs at a campaign event. But the candidate people are waiting for is anything but traditional. Mikhail Prokhorov has a smartphone app, is worth $18 billion, and is better known for late-night parties than political ones.

Being one of Russia’s mega-rich can make life easy, but not if you’re running for political office, says Denis Volkov of the independent polling agency the Levada Center.

Denis Volkov: The majority of the population is very critical about big business.

Many Russians loathe men like Prokhorov who became super-rich when Russia’s natural resources were privatized in the 1990s. But here in Moscow, wealth isn’t such a problem. In the capital, Prokhorov is polling second behind Vladimir Putin. The billionaire fields questions for almost two hours.

Ivan Tchakarov: I think he generally speaks about improving the overall business environment.

Ivan Tchakarov of Renaissance Capital investment bank.

Tchakarov: This is something that, the key thing many foreign investors are complaining about when they refer to Russia, so I think this is a worthy goal.

It also sounds good to Vera Davina, a middle-aged mom who runs her own small Internet trading business. She she welcomes the fact that Prokhorov is new to politics.

Vera Davina: He’s a political novice. But maybe some ideas about effectively managing a business will lead to effective policies.

While Prokhorov’s outlook comes from his business background, Davina says, Putin’s comes from his time in the KGB. Prokhorov repeatedly says he will do what’s best for Russia because his life is sorted. For starters, he says he’ll give $17 of his $18 billion to charity — that’s if he’s elected. But with polls indicating strong support for Vladimir Putin, Prokhorov’s generosity may not be put to the test.

In Moscow, I’m Peter van Dyk for Marketplace.

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