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 announced he is ditching Right Cause.
"I personally call all those who back me to leave that puppet Kremlin party," Prokhorov told a meeting of supporters in the Russian Academy of Sciences.
A breakaway faction of Right Cause, meanwhile, 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 into Russia's largely static political scene. In the "managed democracy" system nurtured under Vladimir Putin's rule as president and now prime minister, most parties represented in parliament have taken their cues from the Kremlin.
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. Its mission was to draw in middle-class, business-oriented voters and to prevent them from going over to the political opposition.
The party currently has no deputies in parliament. It had been expected to make a healthy showing in the December election, but without the benefit of Prokhorov's profile and financial resources, the future of the party now looks bleak.
Prokhorov, 46, was ranked Russia's third wealthiest person in the most recent Forbes rich list with a fortune worth around $18 billion.
The Kremlin appears to be irked at Prokhorov's aggressive efforts to broaden his message and appeal to potential voters as an alternative to Putin's overwhelmingly dominant United Russia party. Prokhorov also has displayed considerable political ambition, expressing an interest in being named prime minister and saying he might consider running for president.
Still, Prokhorov has taken pains to insist he is not an opposition figure, and even Thursday he stopped short of attacking either Putin or President Dmitry Medvedev. Instead, he lambasted Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's seldom-glimpsed political strategist.
"We have a puppeteer in the country, who long ago privatized the political system and who for a long time has misinformed the leadership of the country about what is happening in the political system, who pressures the media ... and tries to manipulate public opinion," he said, referring to Surkov.
Opposition leader Boris Nemtsov said he had warned Prokhorov, a longtime friend, against trying to work within the Kremlin system.
"The Putin political system assumes total loyalty and total groveling," Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, wrote in his blog. "Putin and Medvedev are too weak, too tainted with corruption and too afraid of competition to tolerate even as a joke 'I want to be prime minister' or even worse, 'I may run for president.'"
An opposition party formed by Nemtsov and other former high-placed government officials has been barred from the election.
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. Another is Andrei Dunayev, who on Thursday was elected the party's interim leader.
When Prokhorov's supporters began warning Wednesday of a Kremlin attempt to take the party under its control, observers were divided over whether the drama had been orchestrated to create the idea that Prokhorov was a real opposition figure.
Masha Lipman, an analyst at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said she believed the tension was "genuine" but 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.
Mikhail Delyagin, an economist attending Prokhorov's congress as a guest, said the businessman had come into conflict with the Kremlin by forging his own path.
"He took off the Kremlin dog collar," he said.
Russia's government media already appeared to have lost its support for Prokhorov.
State television channels had given him 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.
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 political apathy displayed by Russian voters.
Peter Leonard and Nataliya Vasilyeva contributed to this report.