Billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov on Monday declared he intends to run for the Russian presidency, posing a sharp challenge to Vladimir Putin in the wake of a series of anti-government protests.
Speaking at a hastily called press conference in central Moscow, Mr. Prokhorov called the decision the "most serious of my life" and said he intended to build aim his campaign around defending the rights of Russia's disenfranchised middle class.
The 46-year-old, who is Russia's third-richest man and the owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, initially entered politics earlier this year, becoming the leader of a pro-business party ahead of the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. The party saw an immediate surge in popularity, and Mr. Prokhorov was suddenly ousted as leader. He blamed a "puppet master" inside the Kremlin.
Now, Mr. Prokhorov is taking those puppet masters on. As an independent candidate not affiliated with any of the officially registered political parties, he must first gather two million signatures in support of his candidacy.
"My program will be without populism. I will say what I think can be done," he told a packed room of reporters. He said he would publish a full platform only after he was officially registered as a candidate.
Mr. Prokhorov's candidacy, should he gather the two million signatures, will inject more drama into Mr. Putin's bid to return to the presidency – a post he held from 2000 to 2008 – after four years as prime minister.
A March 6 vote which initially seemed likely to be a coronation will now be anything but. Other candidates in the race are expected to be the same candidates who have run against Mr. Putin before and lost: Gennady Zyuganov, whose Communist Party came second in the disputed parliamentary vote, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of the far right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Sergei Mironov, whose mildly left For a Just Russia surprisingly gathered much of the anti-Putin vote on Dec. 4.
Moscow's streets have seen a series of protests since that vote, including a massive protest Saturday that saw tens of thousands call for the parliamentary election results to be thrown out. Many also shouted for "Russia without Putin!"
A pro-Putin demonstration was scheduled for Monday in Moscow.
"Society is awakening," Mr. Prokhorov said. But he distanced himself from the protesters, saying he would focus on collecting signatures to support his presidency.
"I am categorically against revolutions. I know our history pretty well. In Russia, revolutions end with big blood, so I am categorically against them. I'm for evolution."