MOSCOW -- After a week of surprising challenges to his authority, Vladimir Putin faces a new one from one of Russia's richest and most glamorous figures: The billionaire owner of the New Jersey Nets says he will run against him in March's presidential election.
The announcement yesterday by Mikhail Prokhorov underlines the extent of the discontent with Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years -- first as president, then as prime minister.
It comes on the heels of Saturday's unprecedented nationwide protests against Putin and his party, United Russia. Tens of thousands of people gathered in the streets to denounce alleged election fraud favoring United Russia in the Dec. 4 parliamentary elections. The fraud and the party's comparatively poor showing in the elections -- losing about 20 percent of its seats, although it retained a narrow majority -- galvanized long-marginalized opposition forces to conduct a startling series of demonstrations, including an enormous rally of at least 30,000 in Moscow alone.
In yet another challenge to Putin, his former finance minister, Alexei Kudrin, said yesterday that he was ready to work to form a new party.
At a news conference announcing his candidacy, Prokhorov refrained from criticizing Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev, but said "society is waking up." "Those authorities who will fail to establish a dialogue with society will have to go," he declared.
Medvedev has promised on his Facebook page that the alleged vote fraud will be investigated. But Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, predicted the probe would show that little vote fraud occurred and that it had no effect on the outcome.
Peskov's comment signaled that Putin -- who served as Russia's president from 2000 to 2008 and stepped over to the premiership because of term limits -- is holding firm despite the protests that were the largest in post-Soviet Russia.
It is unclear how effective a challenger Prokhorov may prove to be. His wealth, estimated by Forbes magazine at $18 billion, and his playboy reputation may turn off voters who resent the giant fortunes compiled by tycoons even as countless Russians struggled through the economic chaos of the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Prokhorov made his fortune in metals and banking and became majority stakeholder in the New Jersey Nets last year.