MOSCOW Russia's former finance chief and one of its richest tycoons put themselves forward as candidates to unite liberal and middle-class voters who vented frustration with Vladimir Putin's political dominance by taking to the streets in protest.
Alexei Kudrin, a longtime Putin ally forced out as finance minister in September, said he wanted to help create a liberal party to fill a void exposed by Russia's December 4 parliamentary vote, which set off mass protests over alleged fraud.
Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a metals magnate who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team, separately announced he would run in the March presidential vote expected to return Putin to the Kremlin after four years as prime minister.
Both men cast themselves as potential leaders of liberal forces that have struggled to gain political representation, but analysts and opposition politicians raised questions about their motives and their independence from Putin and the Kremlin.
Tens of thousands of Russians protested on Saturday over the December 4 parliamentary election they said was rigged in favour of United Russia, the party Putin has used as an instrument of his rule.
Kudrin said the election, in which voters sharply reduced United Russia's majority in the State Duma lower house of parliament, had shown the "dire" need for a strong liberal alternative.
"Today one can say that the demand for the creation of such a structure is so high that it will certainly begin to be created," Kudrin, 51, said in the interview published by the financial daily Vedomosti.
"The process of the consolidation of liberal and democratic forces will now go forward. I am absolutely certain of this, and I myself am ready to support this," Kudrin said, adding that it was too early to talk about a potential leader.
Putin's plan to return to the presidency and make Medvedev prime minister, unveiled in September, deepened feelings of many Russians that the future had been decided without their input. The Duma election increased a feeling of disenfranchisement.
Many protesters in the diverse crowds across Russia on Saturday were drawn from a new middle class of moderately wealthy professionals who are unhappy with a tightly controlled political system dominated by a single man.
Prokhorov, 46, described himself as a "defender of middle-class interests". He told a news conference he was "ready to be an integrator" of Russia's liberal, democratically minded opposition.
Both Prokhorov and Kudrin are relatively new to electoral politics and are fresh from public breaks with the Kremlin.
Kudrin had been finance minister since 2000, the year Putin was first elected president, until he was forced out in September after criticizing President Dmitry Medvedev for lavish military spending plans.
Prokhorov, long seen as more of a playboy than a politician, briefly headed Right Cause, widely seen as a pocket party controlled by the Kremlin to win liberal support.
But he quit, also in September, after a spat with Kremlin political strategist Vladislav Surkov, influential deputy head of the presidential administration.
Neither Kudrin nor Prokhorov attended the protests on Saturday, which could scupper their chances of winning the support of opposition leaders who led the demonstrations.
Boris Nemtsov, a longtime Putin foe whose political party was denied registration by the Justice Ministry this year, barring it from the parliamentary vote, said he believed Prokhorov's candidacy was engineered by the Kremlin.
"This is a 100 percent Putin-inspired project," he told Reuters.
A liberal party led by Kudrin, who rejected a Kremlin request to lead Right Cause earlier this year, could offer a way for Putin to channel discontent and reduce the threat posed by the biggest opposition protests since he came to power in 1999.
"Of course the Kremlin wants to retain control and channel the energy that spilled out into the street on Saturday into a project that will be not be completely unpredictable," said Maria Lipman, political analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
But she said whether or not Kudrin was acting in concert with Putin and the Kremlin, the election and the protests had loosened the government's grip on politics.
"The political monopoly that the Kremlin has got used to will gradually wash away, and even agreements with the Kremlin will not mean unconditional loyalty or Kremlin control over the political process," she said.
KUDRIN CRITICISES UNITED RUSSIA
Kudrin's ties to Putin leave questions about his ability to play a key role in any new political force, particularly after the protests on Saturday featured frequent chants of "Russia without Putin" and "Down with Putin".
Opposition leaders have vowed to hold big new protests on December 24, hoping to increase pressure on Putin as the March 4 presidential vote approaches. Polls show Putin is Russia's most popular politician, but his approval ratings have fallen.
Kudrin avoided strong criticism of Putin in the interview, saying he had done a good job softening the blow from the global financial crisis on Russia, and blaming United Russia for the lack of progress in fighting corruption and other problems.
But he warned that the legitimacy of the presidential election would be undermined if the authorities ignore the allegations of fraud in the parliamentary vote.
Kudrin called for a recount "in certain polling districts and even regions" and said the Kremlin should consider dismissing the head of the Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, which is one of the protesters' other demands.
"If this is not done, the next elections will be conducted in a slipshod manner," he said. "Ignoring obvious violations places the objectivity of these elections in doubt."
Medvedev said on his Facebook site on Sunday that he had ordered an investigation into the electoral fraud allegations, but neither he nor Putin has given any indication they will accede to the protesters' demands for a new election.
Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika said on Monday that he saw no grounds for a recount or a new vote.
Up to 5,000 mostly young pro-Kremlin activists turned out for a rally in a central Moscow square on Monday, Russia's Constitution Day.
Police and state television said the demonstration drew 25,000, the same as the police crowd estimate for Saturday's protest in Moscow.
(Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk, Nastassia Astrasehuskaya and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Alistair Lyon)