Meet 'Russia's Paris Hilton,' who plans to take on Vladimir Putin

PHOTO: Russian TV personality Ksenia Sobchak arrives for a trial of Russian theater director Kirill Serebrennikov, in Moscow, Oct. 17, 2017. PlaySergei Karpukhin/Reuters
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Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal TV journalist and the daughter of a political mentor to Russian president Vladimir Putin, has announced she will run against him in the country’s presidential elections next spring. The move has changed a race that was expected to be a perfunctory coronation of Putin and generated controversy among the opposition, some of whom have criticized her candidacy as another Kremlin ploy.

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Sobchak is the daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, who, as a reformist mayor of Saint Petersburg, helped first bring Putin into politics in the early 1990s and played a key role in paving the ex-KGB spy’s path to the Kremlin. The two men were so close that Ksenia is rumored to be Putin’s goddaughter.

She announced her candidacy in a video posted on Youtube and with an open letter published in a leading business newspaper, Vedomosti.

"I am going into the elections not just as a candidate but as a megaphone for all those who cannot become a candidate. I invite all political forces ready to use my run as a platform to convey their complaints against the present situation and to the authorities," she wrote in Vedomosti.

Russia is due to hold its presidential elections in March. Although he has yet to formally announce his candidacy, Putin is expected to run and to win without difficulty. His list of potential opponents is a familiar cast of authorized opposition, three of whom have run (and lost) against him over the past nearly two decades.

Sobchak’s entry shakes up that scenario, without changing its likely outcome.

One of Russia’s best-known media personalities, she first made her name in reality television, cultivating the role of an on-camera socialite. She has sometimes been described as "Russia’s Paris Hilton," and she previously posed for Playboy and had her own MTV show. Then, half a decade ago, she abruptly remade herself into a leading liberal voice, becoming a top host at Russia’s only opposition TV station, TV Rain.

Sobchak said she was running because she believed her bid could help amplify the voices of Russians who are dissatisfied with Putin's leadership and what she called the country's massive official corruption.

"I think that my participation in the elections really can be a step on the path towards the transformations that are so much needed by our country,” she wrote in Vedomosti.

Sobchak’s run throws a curve ball into the election, but many believe it was thrown by the Kremlin. Her announcement was immediately criticised as a government ploy, intended to divide the anti-Putin opposition that recently had seemed to be gaining steam under another liberal figure, Aleksey Navalny.

Navalny, a charismatic anti-corruption campaigner, has become Russia’s most influential opposition figure, building a grassroots campaign with thousands of young volunteers. Demonstrations in dozens of cities called by Navalny in March and June were the largest in years and have resulted in a backlash from authorities, who have sought to disrupt his rallies and have arrested his supporters.

Despite being barred from running for office by a fraud conviction, Navalny has been organizing what he calls a presidential campaign. He is demanding he be allowed to participate, arguing that the conviction was designed to keep him off the ballot.

Whether the Kremlin would allow Navalny to participate had emerged as the central conflict of the coming election, with his supporters expected to protest if his candidacy is blocked.

But Sobchak’s entry now is seen by some as having the potential to derail that contest. An op-ed written by a political commentator Kirill Rogov on the website of liberal radio station Echo Moskvy declared Sobchak “a spoiler,” adding "Not for Vladimir Putin, but for Aleksey Navalny."

Sergey Uldaltsov, a radical left-wing opposition leader, wrote on Twitter: “The Sobchak thing is too obvious. The Kremlin’s ears stick out for a kilometer.”

Those suspicions may have a basis in reality. Sobchak’s announcement was preceded by a series of leaks that the Kremlin was seeking a female candidate to run against Putin to add spice to a race that was in danger of looking overly controlled. In September, Vedomosti quoted sources in Putin’s presidential administration that the Kremlin considered Sobchak an "ideal candidate."

At the time, Sobchak criticised the reports, calling them an attempt to discredit her. Rumors, however, had continued to circulate that she was planning a campaign.

On Thursday, Andrey Movchan, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Vedomosti that Sobchak’s announcement was “one of the most expected events of recent times.”

Sobchak’s entrance into politics began in the winter of 2011 and 2012 when mass protests broke out against Putin after parliamentary elections were found to have been widely rigged. She appeared before a crowd in Moscow on Christmas Eve, telling the crowd, “I am Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose, but I am here with you.” The crowd booed her, the Guardian reported.

Sobchak has known Putin since she was a child when he served under her father as a deputy mayor. When her father, beset with investigations into alleged corruption, apparently suffered a heart attack, Putin is credited with flying him to Europe for treatment. That act of loyalty was said to have been noticed at a time in the Kremlin and has been credited frequently as a reason for Putin’s eventual anointment as president.

Sobchak has said she had already privately told both Navalny and Putin about her intention to run before making her formal announcement. In an interview on TV Rain, she said she believed Putin “had not liked” the idea. A Kremlin spokesman on Wednesday denied that.

Putin himself commented on a possible run by Sobchak at a press conference on Sept. 5, saying everyone, including Sobchak, "had the right to run."

"I regarded and regard her father with respect,” Putin said. “He played a big role in my fate."

But when it comes to a presidential run, "things of a personal nature can’t play any kind of role," Putin said. "It depends on the program she proposes, if she really will run, how she will organise her campaign.”

Many in the opposition are skeptical the Kremlin is displeased, however, arguing that Sobchak’s bid will defang Navalny’s run, allowing the Kremlin to block him while allowing it still to argue it has permitted a real contest.

"Sobchak cannot help but understand that they will register her for the elections only if she will play by the Kremlin’s rules,” Zoya Svetova, a well-known political analyst and critic of Putin, wrote in a blog post on the opposition website Open Russia. “Is she not ashamed to say that if they register Navalny, she will withdraw her candidacy, knowing full well that they won’t register Navalny?”

In her letter announcing her bid, Sobchak called for Navalny, who is currently serving a 20-day jail sentence for calling for unauthorized protests, to be allowed onto the ballot and suggested that she could still withdraw her candidacy if he is permitted to run.

Navalny has previously warned Sobchak against running, telling her when the reports emerged that the Kremlin was enthusiastic about a potential candidacy, not to play the “quite disgusting Kremlin game.”

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