Mikhail Prokhorov, real Putin opponent?

Protesters are on the streets of Moscow, screaming ugly things about Vladimir Putin, who faces an election next week.

His opposition? Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who is sure to lose.

But is he really an opponent? Or has this long-time friend of the Kremlin been hand-picked to offer token opposition?

That's the question at the center of Julia Ioffe's fascinating New Yorker story about Prokhorov.

It is worth noting that real opponents of the Kremlin, including wealthy connected ones, have suffered bad fates. About 10 years ago, oil-rich Mikhail Khodorkovsky departed Putin's political script. Masked commandos stormed his private jet and he's still behind bars.

In contrast, Prokhorov has long-term ties to all kinds of bigwigs in the Russian government, has been fawned over by Kremlin-controlled media, and has had a hard time convincing voters that he's his own man.

And yet ... he has been brazen in criticizing the administration in new ways (he called Putin's right-hand man a "puppeteer" for instance) and has a history of being boldly independent and more than a little frank. Ioffe writes:

When asked recently on national television whether he had ever participated in corrupt dealings, Prokhorov shrugged and replied, "Yes, of course I participated in them. What, don't I live in this country?"

So, is his campaign a project of the Kremlin, or is he one of the boldest figures in Russian political history, who is risking freedom to call for change?

Ioffe quotes Prokhorov's answer: "There's nothing I can tell you that will convince you. The only way is to keep working, calmly, and prove it with action."

He says that so long as he gets a reasonable number of votes, he'll play a long-term political strategy, with, in Ioffe's words, the following agenda:

Prokhorov seems to relish the role of being the one man who's allowed to speak truth to power. His platform, which he published in January, is full of common-sense proposals, like shortening the Presidential term of office from six years to four, and limiting the number of terms a President can serve. He proposes to force the government to sell its controlling stakes in media organizations. He wants to eliminate the Draconian registration procedures that Surkov invented to keep opposition parties out of the Duma. He has detailed economic proposals designed to boost competition and removes the state's influence from the economy. Prokhorov's first campaign promise was to free Khodorkovsky. He has also become bolder. When asked in a recent television interview about that infamous online comment that only Putin could run the current Russian state, he stuck by it. "But I don't want to live in a country like that," he added.