Business comes to politics
The billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball team, Mikhail Prokhorov, was just elected leader of a Russian political party. This is a new development. On the line with us today to discuss it we have Vyacheslav Nikonov, President of the Policy Foundation.
Most of our American audience may have at least heard of Mr. Prokhorov, because he is the owner of the NBA franchise the New Jersey Nets. Tell us how this guy got to be so rich. He is the third richest person in Russia. How did he get his money?
He got his money first in the banking business in the new Russia. He was one of the co-owners of Onexim Group, which chanced to be very successful. The other co-owner, Mr. Potanin, was at one time Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation. Then, of course, there was Norilsk Nickel, one of the biggest companies producing nickel, but also palladium, platinum and other precious metals, the biggest producer in the world, actually. He owns quite a lot of that. Prokhorov was quite lucky during the times of the crisis, because he sold most of his shares in Norilsk Nickel to other businessmen. So, he stayed with cash during the crisis, and that was the time when cash was king. Thus Prokhorov is one of the richest people in Russia, and he has got money to spare not just on basketball but also on politics.
You say some money. That’s a little bit of an understatement. This guy is worth 18 billion dollars. That’s a lot of weight to through around not just on his country, but really globally.
I don’t think he’s going to spend all 18 billion on his election campaign. Actually, he has recently mentioned he’s not going to spend more than 100 million on the election campaign of his party. He also promised to attract as much money from outside sources. So, it’s 200 million that he’s going to spend on the election, which is a lot, by the way, and which can buy him the way to the State Duma. In order to get there his party needs over 7% of the votes.
Let’s talk about the recent developments that just happened. He was jus elected the leader of the loyal opposition to the Kremlin party. Can you tell us exactly what that means?
They didn’t say they are a loyal opposition. They said that, unlike minor parties, they aren’t going to be opposition. They want to be perceived as the potential party of power, not as the party of permanent opposition like Mr. Zhirinovsky’s party with his Liberal Democratic Party of the Communists, who are always in the opposition and never strive to get to power. Prokhorov says that would be his difference. He doesn’t support the Kremlin policies, but he is not in the opposition, because the word “opposition” is perceived by most Russians, and I think it’s right, as something marginal. So, not to marginalize himself, he presented his party as the potential party of power.
Let’s be clear. Is Mr. Prokhorov friendly with Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev?
I don’t think they are friends. They don’t know one another too well. But, definitely, in the situation as of today, when both Putin and Medvedev are quite popular, to put it mildly, with their Duma rating at about 70%, it’s not very wise to try and get elected into the Parliament and criticize the popular government. Prokhorov said that his ambition in this election is to end up second, which would bring them a voice in domestic and international affairs and give them enough seats in the Duma to bargain over all the major legislation and maybe promote Mr. Prokhorov to the position of the prime minister, which he said he was qualified to occupy.
What is his platform? What are some f the issues that he is standing firm on to separate himself from the elected establishment, from people who are in the Duma now?
By far, there’s not established platform. He was actually elected as the leader of the party only two days ago. I think what really distinguishes him from the government is that he is for election of a sizeable part of the Duma in the constituencies. Right now, the Duma is elected on the proportional basis. He asked for more freedom of business and enterprise. He argues against governmental interference with business. At the same time, he is for the new land reform that will give land to people, which sounds not very traditionally liberal to me, in the Russian sense, but actually rather communist, because it was an old communist idea to divide all land among people. Prokhorov says – and I think that will be one of the attractive points of his programme – that there’s plenty of land in Russia, which is not used, and it could be divided among the people who want it. And that’s something really different from what we hear from the government.
Out of curiosity: how is Mr. Prokhorov received by the Russian people? What is their perception of him? Is he a popular figure?
It’s hard to say. Mr. Prokhorov and his party are not viewed as major election players. The popularity rating is still around 1%. But there is still some time left before the Duma election. Prokhorov is associated with scandals in Courchevel, where he brought girls. He’s associated with big business and with oligarchs, who are not extremely popular. But at the same time I think his image is quite good in terms of his possibility to attract people’s sympathy. I’ve already met quite few people over these two days who said they were going to vote for him.
It will be very an interesting series of developments as the election draws near.