NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia — Microphone in hand, Mikhail Prokhorov doesn't get angry, passionate, rousing, funny or stem-winding. The billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets speaks in a soothing baritone and has barely an unkind word for his opponents in next month's presidential election, including Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Competition, respect and a balanced government: That's the heart of his long-shot pitch. It's what Russia sorely lacks and must acquire, he says, as if this was all just common sense but had somehow been overlooked for the past 10 years.
Prokhorov, who made his money in nickel, aluminum and gold, has flown out to Siberia for the day, to the country's third-largest city, part of his last-minute bid for the top job. As one of Russia's richest men, he's challenging Russia's most powerful man.
And that man, Putin, has acknowledged that the election might go to a second round — though Prokhorov has an uphill climb if he's to be a part of it.
The wealthy, world traveling business titan says he wants a "democracy of taxpayers," instead of a corrupt culture of chiseling and extortion. He promises to dismantle what Putin calls the "vertical of power," under which all authority is concentrated in the Kremlin, by creating an independent judiciary and restoring elections for local officials. He says he is for competition in every field — politics, business, science, what-have-you.
Prokhorov says the prime minister and parliament have to be a strong counterweight to the president.
But Prokhorov has to convince a skeptical public that he's for real. The rich, as a rule, aren't popular.
Three other candidates, from established parties, are in the mix, and the Communist Gennady Zyuganov is the most likely runnerup. But he has been around for 20 years, and Prokhorov is betting that Russia could be ready for a fresh face.
With political ferment stirring for the first time this century, Prokhorov, 46, decided in December to jump into the race. He says he's made enough money — though Forbes estimates his fortune dropped from $18 billion to less than $13 billion in 2011, as Russian stocks took a beating — and now wants to devote himself to his country.