MOSCOW (AP) — Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov was officially registered Wednesday as a presidential candidate, the only political newcomer to join Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the race.
The three others on the ballot for the March vote are veteran party leaders who pose little challenge to Putin, who is seen as all but certain to win the election and return to the post he held from 2000 to 2008.
Putin, however, is under pressure to show he can win a fair election. Evidence of vote rigging to boost the results of his party in a December parliamentary election led to mass protests in Moscow, with another demonstration planned for Feb. 4.
Prokhorov, who owns the New Jersey Nets basketball team, is a 46-year-old businessman with an estimated fortune of $18 billion. His candidacy has been viewed as an effort to channel the discontent among Russia's urban middle class, the core of the anti-Putin protest movement.
Prokhorov insists he is acting independently, but he has refrained from criticizing Putin directly and has said he would consider serving as his prime minister.
The Central Election Commission's decision Wednesday to register Prokhorov came a day after it blocked the candidacy of a prominent opposition leader, Grigory Yavlinsky.
Politicians who want to run for president but whose parties are not in parliament must submit 2 million signatures in support of their candidacy. The commission ruled that too many of the signatures submitted in support of Yavlinsky were invalid, while those for Prokhorov met the requirements.
Yavlinsky's liberal party, Yabloko, had fielded thousands of observers in the December election and they were among the most aggressive in documenting evidence of fraud in favor of Putin's party. Yavlinsky's exclusion from the presidential race denied his party the right to have observers at the March 4 vote.