In a move that may further shake the Putin government's firm political grip, tycoon and NBA franchise owner Mikhail Prokhorov announced he will run for the presidency.
Though other opposition leaders quickly alleged that Monday's surprise decision is a Kremlin ploy to split the vote, the mining magnate and owner of the New Jersey Nets could be a galvanizing figure to the thousands of Russians protesting alleged election fraud and widespread corruption.
At a hastily-called press conference in central Moscow, Mr. Prokhorov explained he was entering the race to "defend the rights of the middle class" – the sector of Russian society that has turned against Mr. Putin and his United Russia party. "Society is waking up," said the candidate, whose wealth is estimated at $18-billion. "Those authorities who will fail to establish a dialogue with the society will have to go."
The last time Mr. Prokhorov tried his hand at Russian politics, he lasted just four months before he was forced out, seemingly a victim of his own growing popularity. The 46-year-old tycoon was outspoken in his disgust at the time, blaming a "puppet master" inside the Kremlin for his ouster as the head of a pro-business party in September.
Now, depending on whom you believe, he is either challenging the puppet masters directly, or willfully joining the show.
The bid could further complicate the Kremlin's plans to return Vladimir Putin to the country's top job next March. The government is already facing the largest opposition protests since the early 1990s, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to protest against alleged fraud during a Dec. 4 parliamentary election.
Many of those who have taken to streets since Dec. 4 – angered primarily by official corruption that reaches deep into ordinary life here – say the real battle for the country's soul will come down to the presidential elections when Mr. Putin aims to return to the presidency after four years as prime minister.
Mr. Prokhorov must now gather two million signatures in support of his independent candidacy, a hurdle that has tripped up other would-be challengers in the past. However, the party that expelled him in the fall, Right Cause, suggested that it could yet decide to support his candidacy for the March 6 election, which would make the collection of signatures unnecessary.
If he is to be successful in his run for office, the gangly, deep-voiced tycoon will have to win over those in the opposition who are skeptical of his candidacy, seeing signs of a Kremlin effort to siphon off support from those leading the demonstrations.
Mr. Prokhorov distanced himself from the protesters, who have given the government until Dec. 24 to throw out the parliamentary election results and call a fresh vote, or face what the opposition says will be even bigger protests. "In Russia, revolutions end with big blood, so I am categorically against them," he said. "I'm for evolution."
The Kremlin on Monday signalled that it would not consider the opposition's demand for fresh elections. Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Mr. Putin, said that even if all the allegations of election fraud were proven, they affected "less than 1 per cent" of the total votes and "in no way affect the legitimacy of the election."
At the same time that Mr. Prokhorov was announcing his candidacy, thousands of pro-Kremlin youths rallied on the edge of Red Square, chanting "Putin! Russia!" as speakers condemned the recent anti-government protests as part of a foreign plot to topple Mr. Putin.
He raised eyebrows by refusing to criticize Mr. Putin directly during his news conference, saying he wanted to focus on the issues and proposing solutions.
Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister and a key leader of the street protests, told the Interfax news agency that he believes Mr. Prokhorov's candidacy is a Kremlin project aimed at defusing public anger over the parliamentary elections by creating the impression that the coming presidential vote will be a competitive one.
Former chess champion Garry Kasparov, a long-time critic of Mr. Putin, was more direct. "Prokhorov is a puppet," he said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. "The Kremlin is desperate to create a distraction and this is another effort to create the illusion of choice to mollify the Russian middle class, to get them out of the streets."
Other opposition figures suggested Mr. Prokhorov's real ambition is to do well enough in the election to potentially become Mr. Putin's prime minister.
That could be a dangerous game for the Kremlin to play. Support for Mr. Putin's United Russia party fell sharply in the parliamentary election, from 63 per cent four years ago to just under 50 per cent. Amid widespread evidence of ballot-stuffing and voter intimidation – and with several opposition parties prevented from taking part in the vote – many believe the real level of support could be less than 40 per cent.
Since Mr. Putin and United Russia are inextricably linked in the minds of most Russians, that could mean the country is headed for its first two-round presidential vote since 1996 (a second round is triggered when no candidate gets over 50 per cent on the first ballot). In such a scenario, whoever comes second on March 6 would face a runoff against Mr. Putin, with the opportunity to unite the anti-Putin vote behind them. Still, with the full resources of the Kremlin at his disposal, Mr. Putin remains the prohibitive favourite to win a third term as president.
Other challengers are expected to include Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, whose party came second in the Dec. 4 vote, and far-right leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, as well as Sergei Mironov, whose For a Just Russia movement captured an unexpectedly large share of the anti-Putin vote in the parliamentary election. All three men have run for the presidency and lost in the past, and their candidacies are seen as approved by the Kremlin.
The country's former finance minister, Aleksei Kudrin, entered the fray Monday, calling for a new party to push for liberal reforms. Another high-ranking official cast out of the Kremlin, Mr. Kudrin publicly criticized Mr. Putin's decision to trade jobs with President Dmitri A. Medvedev.
Mr. Prokhorov's support level is difficult to gauge. A July opinion poll found that only 9 per cent of Russians had a positive opinion of him, versus 10 per cent who had a negative opinion. However, he was seen as having been forced out of the Right Cause party because he was becoming too popular for the Kremlin's liking, and he could become the default candidate for those who don't want six more years of Mr. Putin, and can't stomach the other candidates.
Challenging the Kremlin comes with enormous risks, even for the ultra-rich. Mikhail Khodorkovsky was Russia's richest man until he became outspoken in his criticism of Mr. Putin. He has been in prison since 2003, convicted on tax evasion and embezzlement charges that were widely seen as politically motivated.