MOSCOW (AP) — The Russian billionaire who plans to challenge Vladimir Putin in Russia's presidential election said Thursday that his first move if elected will be to pardon jailed tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.
Mikhail Prokhorov said he would also allow free registration of opposition parties and restore popular elections of provincial governors if he wins March's vote. Putin has marginalized opposition forces, tightened election rules and abolished direct elections of governors.
The 46-year-old Prokhorov, estimated to be worth $18 billion, made his fortune in metals, banking and media. He also owns 80 percent in the New Jersey Nets. Khodorkovsky, once Russia's richest man, has been in jail since 2003 on tax evasion and fraud charges seen as a punishment for defying Putin's power.
Khodorkovsky's lawyers have lost numerous appeals to clear him of the charges.
Prokhorov's surprise announcement this week that he would seek the presidency came in the wake of nationwide protests over alleged fraud in national parliament elections. The protests, which included a throng of tens of thousands in Moscow, were an unprecedented public display of widespread discontent with the man who has dominated Russian politics for a dozen years as president and later as prime minister.
Putin stepped down as president in 2008 because of term limits, but seeks to return to the Kremlin in the March 4 election.
Speaking at a meeting with supporters at a meeting to nominate him for the race, Prokhorov hailed last weekend's protest in Moscow against vote fraud, which attracted tens of thousands in the largest show of discontent in 20 years.
"I deeply understand the demands and the strivings of the people who took to the streets," Prokhorov told reporters, adding that he may join a follow-up protest later this month.
Prokhorov said that "expert opinion" has prompted him to believe that the Dec. 4 parliamentary election was unfair and rigged. But he argued for a legal response to the fraud allegations.
The tycoon avoided criticizing Putin directly, but said he wasn't afraid to challenge his power: "Putin is a serious rival, but I'm not afraid of competition."
Prokhorov, noted for his playboy lifestyle, also humorously noted that he might need to settle down and find a potential first lady.
"I'm ready even for this — if that's necessary for my country and for winning the presidential election."
Prokhorov's presidential bid follows his botched performance before the parliamentary election when he formed a liberal political party with the Kremlin's tacit support but abandoned it under what he called Kremlin pressure.
Some observers alleged that Prokhorov may have made amends with the Kremlin and might be running for president to accommodate voters unhappy with the authorities to steal the thunder from the opposition.
Prokhorov said in his blog Wednesday that he would play his own game.
"Naturally, my candidacy is good for the Kremlin. Naturally, they want to play democracy and show that people have 'some kind of a choice'," he wrote.
"But we must absolutely use the authorities, too, if we don't want to just make some noise and disappear, but to change our lives for the better."