A popular Russian TV anchor who recently announced plans to seek the presidency has vowed to withdraw her candidacy if mainstream opposition leader Alekei Navalny becomes eligible to reenter the contest, but some Russia observers have been quick to pan her candidacy as a Kremlin ploy to split the liberal opposition.
Journalist Ksenia Sobchak, daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, the former St. Petersburg mayor and one-time mentor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, launched a promotional video Wednesday in which she in announced her decision to run as a candidate “against all” on behalf of all angry Russian voters.
In the video, Sobchak says she will drop out of the race if Navalny, who is legally barred from seeking public office until 2028, is allowed to return to the ballot. But some analysts see her bid as a Kremlin ploy to split the liberal opposition by planting a Kremlin-approved spoiler candidate to give the election the appearance of credibility.
Both Sobchak and presidential press secretary Dmitry Peskov have vigorously denied the allegation that any Kremlin officials are involved in Sobchak's candidacy.
Meeting with reporters on Thursday, however, Peskov did not clarify how Putin, who recently met privately with Sobchak, reacted to her plans to challenge his presumptive candidacy for reelection.
Multimillionaire Mikhail Prokhorov's 2012 run for office, in which he secured about 8 percent of the vote, was largely described by critics in the same terms.
Russia's state-run Tass news agency is reporting that Ilya Yashin, the head of Russia's opposition Solidarity movement, won't support Sobchak, a prominent "it girl" socialite who is routinely described as the "Russian Paris Hilton."
Sobchak’s candidacy hasn’t thrilled some of Russia’s seasoned politicians, including Vladimir Zhirinovsky, head of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia.
“This is a fake, phony candidate,” he said, adding that her arrival on the campaign trail could have "dangerous" consequences. He did not elaborate upon what that meant.
Political analyst Dmitry echoed that sentiment, calling Sobchak’s bid “a mutually beneficial scenario” for the 35-year-old TV anchor and Kremlin operatives.
“Clearly Ksenia is a public figure with experience and great communication skills,” Oreshkin told VOA’s Russian service. “Many people may vote for her. She is a woman, she is a fresh face in politics, she is famous, and simply just for kicks. I think she has a good chance to get around 10 percent [of the vote]. The element of novelty will kick in. The Kremlin is counting on that, most likely. That is also what she is counting on.”
Regardless of how her candidacy fairs, Oreshkin added, it can only enhance her elite social status.
“If a candidate for president of Russia hosts some corporate party, it’s fantastic and [has the power to raise] a lot more money, as I understand it,” he said.
Because opposition leader Navalny is barred from running, Oreshkin added, the Kremlin is depending on Sobchak to “bring a terribly depressing presidential campaign back to life.”
“Now there is a new topic for discussion: whether Sobchak is good or bad, whether she’s helping Navalny or hurting him,” Oreshkin said. “It’s something to talk about. The democratically inclined voters will go after that bone. It’s also an element in the Kremlin’s bigger picture, or special operation -- whatever you want to call it.”
If Sobchak is running with blessings of the Kremlin, he said, it only underscores the Russian government's faith in its own impunity.
“It is, in fact, a signal that the government not only demonstrably despises electoral procedures and any civic myths and arguments that the people should be respected, but also the fact that the Kremlin has hopelessly lost touch with reality,” Oreshkin said.
“We just have to thank the Kremlin that it didn’t nominate the puppy named Vernyi that the president of Turkmenistan recently gave to Putin as a gift,” he added.
The name Vernyi literally means "loyalty" in Russian.
‘No target to spoil’
Andrei Kolesnikov, director of the Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions program at the Moscow Carnegie Center, thinks Sobchak’s candidacy lacks any practical significance.
“It cannot have any influence on the outcome of the election,” Kolesnikov told VOA. “The president will receive the required amount of votes, just like the runner-up, and it’s not worth even mentioning the other [candidates].”
Sobchak’s bid, he said, is most likely a self-serving personal project that was “probably approved by the Kremlin but not initiated by it.”
“If [Sobchak is] to be a spoiler, then [she is] without a target to spoil. Navalny will not be allowed to run for president however you look at it," he said, adding that her candidacy also poses no tangible threat to liberal Yabloko Party candidate Grigory Yavlinsky.
"[Yavlinsky] has a nuclear voter base: it’s small but tough, and it’s not leaving him for anyone else,” Kolesnikov said. "I believe the Kremlin grabbed hold of Sobchak’s initiative in an attempt to somehow stir interest in the election. I can even imagine that she will get government support at some point.”
Russia's Central Election Commission recently barred Navalny from seeking office due to his 2013 conviction on money-laundering charges.
International watchdogs groups such as Amnesty International have called the charges a politically motivated fabrication, and the European Court of Human Rights, which recently reviewed the evidence against Navalny, called the Russia court's decision "arbitrary and manifestly unreasonable."
Kolesnikov said: “Those who are truly opposition-minded won't take [Sobchak] seriously.
“Alekei Navalny is working outside of the legal framework so we can’t estimate his possible losses. There is the view that her bid will make it difficult to deliver Navalny’s ideas to the voters. But I don’t accept this argument. Navalny has sufficient chances” to have his message heard, he said.
This story, which originated in VOA's Russian Service, was translated by Svetlana Cunningham.