Russian tycoon abandons Kremlin-backed party

September 15, 2011 - 4:55 AM
Russia Prokhorov

Russian tycoon and New Jersey Nets basketball team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, attends a meeting of the Right Cause party in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2011. The general conference of the political party led by Mikhail Prokhorov descended into chaos Thursday as the meeting split into two rival factions. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze)

MOSCOW (AP) — One of Russia's richest tycoons abandoned his efforts Thursday to build up a political party and enter parliament, saying he was unwilling to tolerate interference from the Kremlin.

Right Cause, a tacitly Kremlin-sponsored party headed by New Jersey Nets basketball team owner Mikhail Prokhorov, had been expected to draw on the support of opposition-minded and pro-business voters ahead of the Dec. 4 elections for the State Duma, Russia's national parliament.

But in the wake of a mutiny within the party's ranks, Prokhorov has announced he is ditching Right Cause.

"I call on those who support me to leave to leave this Kremlin puppet party," Prokhorov told supporters at a meeting in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

A breakaway faction of the Right Cause gathered across town to claim its right to the party.

The chaotic developments around the nominally pro-business party have injected an unusual degree of excitement to Russia's largely static political scene. In the "managed democracy" system developed under Vladimir Putin's rule as president and now prime minister, most parties represented in parliament have taken their cues from the authorities.

Right Cause, which has been led by Prokhorov since earlier this year, was created in 2008 as the result of a merger between three center-right parties. It currently has no deputies in parliament. It had been expected to make a healthy showing in the December election, but the future of the party now looks bleak.

The Kremlin appears to be irked at Prokhorov's appeal to potential voters for Putin's overwhelmingly dominent United Russia party and his outspoken criticisms of the government — even though Prokhorov has been at pains to insist he is not a member of the opposition.

Prokhorov, 46, was ranked Russia's third wealthiest person in the most recent Forbes rich list with a fortune worth around $18 billion.

Several candidates put themselves forward Wednesday in a bid to depose Prokhorov as leader of Right Cause. Ostensibly, the cause of the split appears to have centered around anti-drug campaigner Yevgeny Roizman, who Prokhorov has insisted on including in the party list over the objections of many members. Roizman is a contentious figure criticized by many for the harsh drug treatments that he has championed.

One of Prokhorov's main antagonists within Right Cause to emerge this week is Andrei Bogdanov, a leading Freemason who garnered 1.3 percent of the vote in a 2008 presidential run.

Observers are divided over whether the drama surrounding Prokhorov has been orchestrated as an effort to create the artificial impression that he is a real opposition figure.

Masha Lipman, an analyst the Carnegie Moscow Center, said she believed tension was "genuine," but that this did not mean that Prokhorov and the Kremlin had never had talks about his political future.

"Otherwise he would not have been able to go on television and campaign," Lipman said.

The support of Russian government media already appears to have slipped away from Prokhorov.

State television has given Prokhorov a fair degree of favorable coverage in recent weeks, but the midday news of the main Channel One station made no reference at all to the furor around Right Cause, which has dominated Russian blogs this week.

NTV, a channel owned by state-owned energy company Gazprom, led its afternoon news bulletin with coverage of the breakaway Right Cause faction and showed only a brief clip of Prokhorov.

United Russia is expected to sweep the Duma elections, although authorities have grown visibly concerned over the disaffection and political apathy displayed by Russian voters.

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Associated Press writers Peter Leonard and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.