MOSCOW — The drab presidential campaign in Russia has taken an unexpected and dramatic turn with the announced candidacy of a former reality TV star and daughter of an old mentor of President Vladimir Putin.
Ksenia Sobchak, 35, a journalist, entrepreneur and icon of Moscow's liberal bourgeoisie, strikes a sharp and colorful contrast with the other presidential candidates, who have not changed much since the 1990s.
When she announced her candidacy last month, Sobchak said she intended to break through by "voting against everything."
In a subsequent news conference, she presented a largely liberal program, in which she criticized the legitimacy of the elections, called for the release of political prisoners and even took a strong stand against Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. “From the point of view of international law, Crimea is Ukrainian, full stop,” she was quoted as saying by The Independent.
A controversial and multifaceted personality, Sobchak hosts a political TV program on an independent cable network, directs the Russian version of the magazine L’Officiel and runs several businesses that have made her a multimillionaire. She is also the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the former mayor of Saint Petersburg who launched Vladimir Putin’s political career more than two decades ago. That means that Ksenia Sobchack has direct access to the chief of state, who remains a close family friend.
Sobchak's challenge will be to convince voters that her campaign is legitimate
Before she can officially enter the race for the Kremlin, the central electoral commission has to approve her candidacy. For this she must present 300,000 signatures from at least 40 Russian regions. Fundraising takes a significant financial toll and allows the Kremlin to weed out candidates. In the past, candidates out of favor with the authorities were rejected for providing “false signatures.” Passing this test will confirm whether or not Putin approves of Sobchak's candidacy.
Sobchak’s other challenge is to convince voters that her campaign is actually legitimate. As soon as the possibility of her candidacy first came up in September, she was suspected of being under the control of Putin's administration, which de facto controls nearly the entire Russian political landscape, from the media to the choice of candidates via the electoral commission and parliament.
At last week's news conference, Sobchak said she would not engage in "personal insults" against Putin. “For a few people, Putin is a tyrant and a dictator. For others he is a strong leader. For me, Putin is someone who in very difficult circumstances helped my father, saved his life even. I’m not going to insult him,” The Independent quoted her as saying.
The announcement of her candidacy came a day after the electoral commission rejected the candidacy of the democratic opposition’s apparently natural candidate, Alexei Navalny, over a suspended five-year prison sentence for fraud. The European Court of Human Rights has denounced Navalny's exclusion as “unfounded” and “politically motivated.”
Sobchak’s chances of preventing Putin’s reelection for a fourth term in March are nonexistent. But she has driven Navalny into a ditch and could help the Kremlin raise the participation rate of young voters. Navalny supporters are stunned by their former ally’s initiative, but the dynamic of their rivalry is both unprecedented and unpredictable.
It is not impossible that the two might form a team: Navalny at the heart of the system and Sobchak the outsider, in a position of radical confrontation with the government. While they won't be able to push Putin out of the Kremlin, careful coordination could shatter his claim to unanimous power and sabotage his legitimacy in the long run — both with the elite and the masses.
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