Ksenia Sobchak – Opposition Leader or Kremlin Spoiler?

Russian TV personality, Ksenia Sobchak, recently announced her intentions to run for President of her country in the upcoming 2018 elections, as a “none of the above” choice. She is the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, former mayor of St. Petersburg, and the political mentor of Russia’s current president, Vladimir Putin. When Anatoly Sobchak was wanted for corruption, it was Putin who came to his rescue, arranging his relocation to France. Upon his return, Anatoly Sobchak was appointed one of Putin’s official representatives in his first presidential campaign. The Sobchak family has long enjoyed good relations with Putin, even after Anatoly’s death in 2000.

Since then, Ksenia Sobchak continued to support Putin politically for about a decade. However, in 2012, she resolved to vote for opposition candidate Mikhail Prokhorov, because she believed that Putin’s continued rule was taking Russia in the wrong direction. She was also opposed to the alleged electoral fraud orchestrated by Putin. Ms. Sobchak began participating in protests against Putin, which led to her brief arrest, and made her subject to numerous investigations by the Russian government. All this propelling her to launch her new bid for the presidency.

Unusual for a Russian opposition politician, Sobchak initiated her campaign by taking political positions opposed by the majority of Russians. She announced her support for feminism and radical privatization, both of which are fairly unpopular. A plurality of Russians look to the government to solve economic issues, and while gender equality is favored overall, feminism, at least by name, is not. Most controversially, Ksenia Sobchak publicly stated that she is opposed to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, an important source of Putin’s popularity.

Sobchak’s announcement comes at a crucial time for the Russian opposition to Putin. Alexey Navalny, standard-bearer of the movement, was arrested numerous after leading anti-government protests possibly disqualifying him from participating in the 2018 elections. Sobchak insists that she is on the same side as Navalny, while Navalny’s supporters criticize her for fragmenting the opposition. Navalny, unsure that he will even appear on the ballot, continues to maintain that he is the best hope to replace Putin.

Dividing the opposition is not the only thing Sobchak has been accused of. Prominent political voices, both in Russia and abroad suggested that she is “spoiler”, meaning a candidate put up by Putin to siphon opposition votes away from legitimate opponents like Navalny.  This is further strengthened by the fact that Sobchak met with Putin immediately before announcing her bid for president. In addition, Sobchak’s campaign is likely to be extremely expensive, and as such, it is suspected that Kremlin-linked businessmen will be funding it. If she is in fact a spoiler, Sobchak’s run represents Putin’s latest jab at his opposition, given that she is a socialite (often dubbed “Russia’s Paris Hilton”) not a serious politician.

Of course, Sobchak herself claims that she is a true opposition candidate, and that she did not consult with Putin regarding her bid, instead simply informing him ahead of the public announcement. Putin’s supporters, as well, see Sobchak as a rival. This is especially true after she criticized the annexation of Crimea, given what a popular move it was among Russians across the political spectrum. Since not even Navalny opposes the annexation, Sobchak appears to be an even more radically opposed to Putin than him.

Ultimately, whether or not Sobchak is a spoiler candidate is of little relevance to Russian politics. Putin is expected to win the 2018 election easily, regardless of whether Navalny is able to run. Russian elections, especially those for the country’s highest office, are rarely legitimate contests between candidates with different platforms. The political system is centered around stability in leadership, meaning that Western-style “free elections” are seen as potentially destabilizing events. It is rumored that local authorities are expected to follow the “70-70” rule when organizing the vote – 70% participation rate, with a 70% of the votes going to the government’s candidate. As a result, regardless of who they are, virtually all opposition candidates are part of a “controlled opposition” to Putin and his government.

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