Vladimir Putin has been Russia's undisputed leader for so long that people sometimes forget that, according to the country's constitution, he needs to be periodically re-elected.
That moment is fast approaching.
As usual, Mr. Putin himself is being coy about whether he will even stand in the presidential polls slated for next March. Russia's established non-Kremlin political actors like Communist Gennady Zyuganov, noisy ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, whose limitations are clearly defined by numerous past attempts, are girding themselves for one more performance as designated also-rans.
But, until recently, there had been something missing from that well-rehearsed formula: the “wild card” candidate. That is, someone whose role is to inject a bit of public excitement, suspense, and a semblance of real competition into what has become a tired, familiar, and utterly predictable old horse race.
Enter Ksenia Sobchak, a well-known media personality and a sometime liberal political activist, who aims to fill that bill. She knows what she's doing. There is no chance of defeating Putin, even in a completely fair and open contest, if only because his commanding popularity among most Russians remains unshakeable. But there are large pockets of opposition, concentrated among the educated, professional, and small business classes in large cities, who might get behind someone who addresses their frustrations in a recognizably modern, liberal, pro-European political language.
“Sobchak is a person of that milieu, upper-middle class, rich, talented and educated,” says Andrei Kolesnikov, a political analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center. “In the last election, it was Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire business tycoon, who created this idea of a new type of candidate to give hope to that class of Russians. And he did, even if he was ultimately under control of the Kremlin. [Mr. Prokhorov finished third in the 2012 presidential elections, with 8 percent of the votes.] I don't think Sobchak is as substantial has he was, but she will do for the role.”
An 'against all' candidate
Ms. Sobchak says she will step aside if the obvious candidate to fill the opposition slot this time around, anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, is allowed by the Kremlin to run against Putin. But Mr. Navalny remains under house arrest, and barred by law from running in elections until 2026. Until then, she is inviting Russians who are impatient with the state capitalism, ritual patriotism, and managed democracy of the Putin-era to regard her as the “against all” candidate – in reference to an option that used to be on Russian ballots before authorities realized how dangerous it was and removed it. Experts say that shows considerable political savvy on her part.
“I think the idea for Sobchak to run was her own initiative. However, even if Ksenia denies it, there is no doubt that her candidacy is approved by the Kremlin,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, who worked in the Kremlin as Putin's chief image-maker during his first two terms, 2000-08, but has since become a critic of the system. “The Kremlin has been interfering in presidential elections for a long time, first within legal limits, then beyond the framework of law, to the point where it now tries to control the entire process from top to bottom. But it's becoming isolated from the people. It's not a system that can last.”
Sobchak, a former reality TV star, is often dubbed a Russian version of Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. But that's not really fair. Her father was the reformist mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoly Sobchak, and political mentor of none other than Vladimir Putin. Indeed, Putin is Sobchak's godfather. She has worked as an actress, journalist, and TV presenter, and currently hosts a fairly high-brow political talk show on the opposition Dozhd TV channel. Talking to journalists last week, she admitted her function was to spice up the electoral spectacle, not to win.
“You can laugh at me, but I understand show business,” she said. “My job is to rewrite the rules of the show – to bring a new face to the show.”
Asked about her relations with Putin, she was cautious: “Of course for some Putin is a tyrant and dictator. Others consider him Russia's savior. But I'm in a difficult position, Putin helped my dad, and practically saved his life. But I am against the fact that any person, including Putin, should be in power for 18 years.”
Can she measure up?
It's too early to speak about detailed political programs. Those will be unveiled when the campaign starts in earnest in January.
But in a letter to the Moscow business newspaper Vedomosti, Sobchak said that her candidacy could be a step toward the transformation of Russia by voicing opposition to corruption, authoritarian governance, and untrammeled bureaucracy. “We should not ignore elections as an institution, as the main instrument of public representation and the foundation of true democracy, even though, in fact, in recent decades it has never been applied as it should,” she said.
She went on to say that she would use the electoral podium to promote “European values,” support small business, human rights, media freedoms, and the advocate the privatization of big state corporations.
Among those who would support a serious alternative to Putin, opinion divides on whether Sobchak can measure up.
“If we had normal elections in this country, she could be a real candidate,” says Nikolai Svanidze, a famous Russian TV personality. “Sobchak is a talented person who has been a success in business, in media, and even took a successful turn as a political activist during the protests in 2011-12. Then she got bored and decided to try her hand in presidential elections.”
Others see her as a Kremlin stooge.
“This is a system where Putin decides who will run,” says Sergei Davidis, a human rights lawyer. “Sobchak's image as an opposition figure has been created by the mass media, with her interesting biography and her rushing from one political side to another. It leads people to think that she is the only candidate the opposition can put forward. So, it's her or Putin then. Well, people will conclude, certainly not her!”