Mikhail Prokhorov: The NBA owner who wants to oust Putin

The third richest man in Russia — and owner of the New Jersey Nets — vows to run against Vladimir Putin in 2012. Does Prokhorov stand a chance?

New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov made billions in Russia's metals markets, and now wants to relieve the country of its Putin problem by running for president.
(Image credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

With anti-corruption protesters filling Moscow's streets, the billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Mikhail Prokhorov, announced Monday that he is going to run against Vladimir Putin in next year's presidential election. Does he really stand a chance against Putin, who is now the country's prime minister and has twice served as president? Here, a brief guide:

Who is this guy?

Prokhorov, 46, is the third richest man in Russia. Forbes magazine estimates his fortune at $18 billion. Nicknamed "Giraffe" in school — he's 6 feet 8 inches tall — Prokhorov started his career as a banker. As chairman of Onexim Bank, he managed to buy a stake in metals giant Norilsk Nickel during the sell-off of Russian industries in the 1990s, which made a small group of oligarchs ridiculously rich overnight. Since then, Prokhorov has survived a series of scandals, including a prostitution mess in France followed by the forced sale of his stake in Norilsk Nickel. In 2007, he founded Onexim Group, a private investment holding company with stakes in gold producers, among other industries.

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And he owns the Nets?

Yep. Prokhorov bought the basketball team in 2010, becoming the first NBA owner from outside North America. He underwent media training to win over fans, telling reporters at his introductory press conference, "America, I come in peace." Prokhorov told The New York Times Magazine that buying the Nets raised his global profile considerably, and suddenly people seemed to care about what he had to say.

Is this his first foray into politics?

No. Prokhorov spent four months leading the pro-business Right Cause party before leaving in September. "The project was a failed attempt to garner liberal support ahead of the parliamentary elections" in December, says Miriam Elder at Britain's Guardian, "and was apparently derailed by the Kremlin once it got too popular." Before leaving Right Cause, Prokhorov loudly accused the government of President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin of wrecking his party's efforts.

Could he actually win the presidency?

It's unlikely. Prokhorov still has to gather two million signatures to even get on the March ballot. And while protesters are angry at Putin's ruling United Russia party over alleged fraud in the early December parliamentary elections, Putin is still popular in many circles, and far better known than Prokhorov. Some people don't think Prokhorov is a serious candidate, anyway. He has old ties to the Kremlin — his father was a high-ranking official at the Soviet Sports Committee — and some political analysts say his candidacy is "pure fake and bluff" orchestrated by the Kremlin to divert protesters' attention and take heat off of Putin and United Russia.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian, NY Times Magazine, Wash. Post

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