"Strawberry king" set to challenge Putin

"Strawberry king" set to challenge Putin

Strawberry king set to challenge Putin

A debonair businessman who boasts million-dollar earnings, Pavel Grudinin is a surprise choice as Russia’s Communist candidate for president.

Nicknamed the “strawberry king,” the 57-year-old has a pick-your-own fruit farm and dairy herd on a chunk of valuable real estate on Moscow’s outskirts.

With luxuriant curly grey hair, moustache and a ready smile, he is the first fresh face in years to stand for the red-flag-waving party led by 73-year-old stalwart Gennady Zyuganov.

In a predictable March 18 presidential election, Grudinin will likely be runner-up to President Vladimir Putin, though he lags far behind in state-run opinion polls at around seven percent.

He appears to have all the credentials for a Communist candidate: he runs an agribusiness named after Vladimir Lenin and has praised Stalin, to whom he bears a passing resemblance.

Yet he is not a member of the Communist party and has criticised its “dogmas.”

Much of his wealth comes from renting and selling highly valuable land bordering the Moscow ringroad to hypermarkets. Last year his company’s turnover was reportedly four billion rubles ($69 million).

“My earnings over the last six years were 157 million rubles [$2.7 million]. I don’t earn badly,” he told reporters.

Analysts see his role in the Kremlin scenario as boosting turnout -- but not taking votes away from Putin.

Grudinin is willing to criticize policies but not the strongman himself.

“This is not a battle between people, it’s a battle of ideologies,” he said.

In the past he publicly supported Putin and even joined the ruling party.

Communist leader Zyuganov has praised Grudinin for enacting socialist principles, from building a turreted Disney-style kindergarten to paying workers above-average wages.

Zyuganov calls it a “territory of social optimism.”