Moscow’s It girl takes on Putin

With approval ratings topping 80%, Vladimir Putin “could be on for a landslide” in Russia’s presidential elections in March, says Sky News. Although there are no serious challengers following the banning of Alexei Navalny (see below), by far his most intriguing opponent is Ksenia Sobchak – a Russian celebrity and political talk-show host once described as “Moscow’s answer to Paris Hilton”.

Sobchak has outlined how she wants to “unite” opposition against Putin, and there is talk of “high-level connections in Russia’s business world” who may be helping with campaign funding.

A Kremlin-backed decoy…

The big twist, says the Daily Mail, is that the glamorous Sobchak, 36, has known Putin since childhood. Her late father, the former St Petersburg mayor, Anatoly Sobchak, was an early mentor of the president and “gave him his first political job after he quit the KGB”.

The relationship was so close that “for years there were rumours” (since denied) that Ksenia was Putin’s goddaughter. While interviewing the Russian president recently for a documentary about her father, Sobchak says she revealed her political plans. “I had an impression he didn’t like it,” she told Dozhd TV, an independent Russian TV channel.

But there are plenty of people in Russia who think that the reverse is true, says the BBC. They claim that Sobchak is actually “a Kremlin-backed decoy”, who has been roped in to standing with the precise purpose of fragmenting and weakening the opposition to Putin.

Rumours like that are nothing new, says The Guardian. Way back in 2005 – when Sobchak was at the height of her “It girl” fame and considered “the most eligible bachelorette in Moscow” – the same charge was laid at her feet when she announced plans to form an “All Free” youth movement. Back then, however, she made no bones about her fondness for Putin, claiming he had always been loyal to her father and “looked after her” when the latter fell from grace during the Boris Yeltsin era in 1997.

Sobchak, who is married to an actor and last year gave birth to a son called Plato, has always been “sensitive to the charge that her fame and TV career are the result of the Russian elite looking after its own”, says The Guardian. Still, she does seem to have enjoyed a gilded path. As a child she attended both a famous ballet school and the Hermitage Museum art school, and later studied international relations at a prestigious Moscow State Institute.

Tapped as a candidate to become Russia’s first national space tourist in 2004, Sobchak chose instead to launch a TV career, becoming the excitable host of Dom-2 – a reality TV dating show much frowned upon by conservative Russians. She never looked back, eventually switching to political chat in around 2010. Her earnings of around $2m in 2017 made her the tenth highest-paid celebrity in Russia, according to Forbes.

…or star of the opposition?

After taking part in the protests of 2011-12, Sobchak became “a star of the opposition”, says Oleg Kashin in The New York Times. Perhaps her desire to defeat her old family friend at the ballot box is genuine. But since Putin himself “effectively determines” who gets to be on the ballot, he clearly doesn’t see her as much of a threat. Moreover, he understands there’s “no glory in defeating the usual run of puppet buffoons” on the hard left and right. Ksenia Sobchak offers a useful “fresh face”.

The real leader of the Russian opposition

Alexei Navalny, the main potential challenger to Vladimir Putin and only truly independent opposition leader, has been officially barred from running for president. Neither the ban, which was announced by Russia’s supreme court on 25 December, nor Navalny’s subsequent call for an election boycott, “came as much of a surprise”, says The Economist. Ever since the charismatic former lawyer “galvanised huge street protests” following alleged electoral fraud in the 2011 legislative elections, the Kremlin has been trying to “neutralise” him, says the magazine.

In 2013, Navalny was convicted on “trumped-up” embezzlement charges and he has been arrested and jailed repeatedly. In 2017, he was nearly blinded when a pro-Kremlin activist threw antiseptic green dye into his face, says Marc Bennetts in The Guardian. Undaunted, the leader of the Progress Party has called for mass demonstrations on 28 January to boycott the presidential election. He has been barred from state TV and Putin refuses to mention him by name – but clearly sees him as the main political threat at present.

The 47-year-old rose to prominence in 2008 as a shareholder activist. His punchy blog about alleged malpractice and corruption at some of Russia’s largest state-controlled firms rapidly gained a large following, particularly among young people, says the BBC. In the 2011 parliamentary elections, he urged his readers to vote for any party apart from Russia’s ruling United Russia, which he described as a “party of crooks and thieves”.

Although Navalny has succeeded in building a “surprisingly large popular movement”, he is something of an “enigma”, says Kathrin Hille in the Financial Times. Based on his claim that 83% of national wealth is owned by 0.5% of the population, his “simple promise” is to fairly distribute the riches “monopolised by a corrupt oligarchy”. Yet his political platform remains vague. Critics fear he may just be another strongman in waiting.