MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov, who leads a small party praised by President Dmitry Medvedev, ridiculed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s new political movement on Tuesday and said he would one day like the premier’s job.
Prokhorov, who made a fortune by gaining control of the world’s biggest palladium producer after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, last month took charge of a party which has called for Medvedev to run for re-election in the 2012 presidential election.
Putin and Medvedev have both repeatedly refused to say which of them will run in the March presidential election, though Putin created a new movement in May to widen the support of his ruling party ahead of a December parliamentary election.
The 46-year-old owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball club told the Kommersant newspaper that he agreed with Putin on some issues but not others, citing the centralized political system crafted by Putin during his 2000-2008 presidency.
The billionaire also mocked the swift rise in membership of Putin’s movement, the All-Russian People’s Front.
“You know, in my opinion, it is really laughable when 38 million agricultural workers join the Front in a single day,” Prokhorov told the paper, referring to a decision last month by Russia’s Agrarian Movement to join Putin’s movement.
While steering clear of direct criticism of Putin, he said the United Russia party which Putin leads was an ineffective monopoly. He said he hoped one day to be prime minister.
“Do you think I entered politics just to get into the Duma and then to relax and have a smoke?” said Prokhorov, adding that his free-market Right Cause party aimed to get 15 percent in the elections to the lower house of parliament, known as the Duma.
When asked why he wanted to become prime minister, the job Putin took in May 2008 when he stepped down as president after steering Medvedev in to the Kremlin, Prokhorov said:
“Because this job is clearer to me: it is connected with the things I have had to deal with in business. I have dealt with all sectors of the economy,” Prokhorov said.
Prokhorov, the most influential Russian billionaire to enter public politics since the 2003 arrest of oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, said he did not know what Putin would think of his ambition.
“I don’t know. I think it would be better if you asked him,” said Prokhorov, who is ranked by Finans magazine as Russia’s second richest man with a fortune of $22.7 billion, behind steel magnate Vladimir Lisin with $28.3 billion.
Such a response is unusually blunt given the power of Putin, Russia’s paramount leader, who made clear during his presidency his view that the deeply unpopular oligarchs should stay out of politics.
Khodorkovsky’s business empire was carved up and sold after he fell foul of the Kremlin under Putin. He is still in jail.
But few investors and diplomats believe such a powerful tycoon as Prokhorov would have entered politics without the direct approval — or even a direct order — from Medvedev’s Kremlin.
His outspoken entry into politics may even help create the perception of competition in the election year while garnering support from notoriously cynical urban professional voters.
Right Cause called in November 2010 — before Prokhorov’s election as leader — for Medvedev to run for a second term in the 2012 election and last month the Kremlin chief praised Prokhorov, saying many of his ideas were similar to his own.
A whiz-kid of Russian finance who is sometimes called Moscow’s most eligible bachelor, he earned a fortune by selling a one-quarter stake in mining behemoth Norilsk Nickel just before the 2008 global crisis hammered Russia’s economy.
He has a 17 percent stake in RUSAL, the world’s top aluminum producer, and a 30 percent stake in Russia’s top gold producer, Polyus Gold.
Prokhorov quipped that with his wealth, he could even top the campaign financing for Putin’s party: “If not for restrictions on party funding, I would beat United Russia with one single payment.”