With his announcement that he’ll be running against Vladimir Putin for Russia’s presidency, Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire businessman with Jewish roots who owns the New Jersey Nets, finally showed his hand on why he bought a majority stake in the perennial NBA basement-dwellers from Newark a couple years back: insurance.
Here’s how it works:
Businessman makes it big in the new Russia, thanks in part to ties to Kremlin.
As businessman’s power grows, Kremlin’s defenses are roused, and billionaire is warned. (In 2000, shortly after becoming Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin met with Russia’s oligarchs to warn them that they had better steer clear of politics.)
Billionaire gets involved in the political opposition or media outlets that don’t toe the government line.
Then one of the following scenarios ensues:
a) Billionaire flees Russia (see Leonid Nevzlin, who moved to Israel before being convicted in absentia in 2008 by a Russian court of conspiracy to commit murder).
b) Billionaire sticks around and gets punished (see Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a Jewish oligarch who once ran Russia’s biggest energy company — and worked with Nevzlin — but who since 2003 has been sitting in a Russian prison on charges human rights groups say were politically motivated).
c) Billionaire sticks around and hopes he has a high enough profile to deter the Kremlin.
That didn’t work for Khodorkovsky, who was Russia’s richest man until Russia threw him in prison and took control of Yukos, his energy company.
Prokhorov, whose maternal grandmother was Jewish, must think he can avoid a similar fate either because the political culture in Russia is changing or because he’s betting the Kremlin won’t be able to muzzle (or imprison) someone so well-known and with strong ties to the West.
Or maybe Prokhorov’s just foolish. He did, after all, buy the Nets.