Moscow is buzzing with excitement. Eight years after the disastrous challenge to Vladimir Putin's regime by the now-jailed oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, another oligarch entered Russian politics on Saturday - Mikhail Prokohorov, third richest man in Russia, who heads the Onexim group, an investment firm with big interests in mining, new technologies, media and banking. MP will be heading a 'pro-business', 'reformist' party Pravoe Delo [Right Cause], which has a programme suspiciously reminiscent of President Dmitry Medvedev’s own policies.
Russians will find MP hugely attractive - hopelessly handsome 46-year old bachelor, 6'8" tall, listed 39th richest man in the world by Forbes with assets estimated at 18 billion dollars. And of course he owns the top US basketball team, New Jersey Jets and has a dazzling range of interests including masterminding the production of Russia's first hybrid car, the Yo-mobile. Some of his remarks:
* "The model of management (of Russia) which had an effect for the last 10 years has simply exhausted itself. This is not surprising. The world is changing fast."
* "Do we have multi-party politics (in Russia)? Of course we don't. There is need to have at least two parties of power. Any political monopoly is our main opponent. It's even clear in school text books that a monopoly is the enemy of all development."
* "Our country is called the Russian Federation, but by structure it is an empire. Only presidential power works here, and this kind of governance cannot provide stability let alone development,"
* "Our whole country is systemically degenerating: our industry has collapsed, and we are nothing but a supplier of raw materials, although quite a powerful one."
* "The education, healthcare, and culture sectors are degenerating now. Expenses on these should be higher than the expenses on security, law enforcement, and defense."
MP is making the right noises for Russia's audience in the West, where he is a celebrity. MP even called for the release of Khodorkovsky, who is locked up in a Siberian prison for the past 7 years. “As a person, I express deep sorrow that such trials happen in this country,” MP said. All this has convinced some people to say MP has a secret deal with Medvedev - that MP is Medvedev's torpedo against Putin's submarine. They even say MP could be keeping a spot warm for Medvedev as the leader of Pravoe Delo. To spur speculations further, Medvedev's chief economic advisor, Arkady Dvorkovich, wrote on Twitter, "Most of Prokhorov's ideas in his speech are close to me".
The western press has gone berserk. The champagne bottles are out: It is the Gorbachev - Yeltsin dogfight all over again which brought the Kremlin's Soviet roof come down crashing. Leon Aron even wrote that Russia is approaching another "perestroika moment".
Aren't they going too fast on the track of wishful thinking? The Medvedev-Putin 'tandem' is an enigma. What if MP is a Kremlin creation designed partly as a lightning rod and partly to attract opposition-minded voters? Even stranger things can happen in Russian politics. Incidentally, MP has investigations on tax invasion pending against him. And his pet hybrid car project was also Putin's brainwave. MP can turn out to be what Russian cynics call a 'PR counterweight' to offset the bad name Russia earned as a foreign investment destination due to the case of Khodorkovsky case, who was once Russia's richest man but jailed on charges which the West alleges to be politically motivated after he funded opposition parties and threatened to sell off major assets to American companies.
On the other hand, MP holds big assets in the West and has powerful connections. To be sure, Russian politics is hotting up - parliamentary elections are scheduled for December where Putin leads the ruling party and his popularity will be tested ahead of the presidential election due in March next year. The western interference in Russian politics will be cascading in the coming months since this is a high-stakes game for US' global strategies (and for China) - who rules Russia from next year.