The woman battling Putin for Russia’s presidency made a curious trip to America

Sobchak unveils her 123-step policy program.
Sobchak unveils her 123-step policy program.
Image: AP Photo/Denis Tyrin
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New York City

Normally, a presidential candidate polling at just over 1% with six weeks to go would be campaigning hard across the country, in a desperate effort to drum up support. Not Ksenia Sobchak.

Last night, the 36-year-old Russian socialite, journalist, opposition activist, and now politician appeared in New York City, in front of a packed audience of students and assorted Russophiles at Columbia University. Tim Frye, Columbia’s political science chair, seemed suitably confused to be sitting down with her. “We’re very glad that you’re here, we’re very honored that you’re here, but why are you here?” he asked.

The reasons, it seemed, were many. Sobchak wants to show Americans that Russian president Vladimir Putin “is not Russia.” To show the Kremlin that “a responsible president should not be pushing relations with a world power towards a deadlock.” And to show ordinary Russians that America isn’t an enemy, that talking to foreigners and being an internationalist shouldn’t be stigmatized.

Many analysts believe Sobchak, whose father was mayor of St Petersburg and Putin’s political mentor, might be a Kremlin stooge, selected to “run” against the president in a charade of democratic process both at home, and abroad. But whatever the reason, the opposition candidate found a much more admiring audience in the US than she’s used to in Russia. Her “it girl” reputation aside, the former reality TV star is a smart analyst with a ready wit, who hosts a compelling political interview show on Russia’s only independent TV channel. Speaking in fluent English, she rolled off a list of observations and policy prescriptions that find a perfect home among coastal Americans: Russia should liberalize the resource curse-spoiled economy, she said. Institute rule of law. End Putin’s cronyism. Guarantee full rights for LGBT Russians. Erect walls between business and government. Welcome back foreign investors. Even recognize that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.

“You know,” one academic commented admiringly after the talk. “I didn’t expect to like her.”

The contradiction at the heart of Sobchak’s campaign

When I caught up with Sobchak afterwards in her Four Seasons hotel room, she was in a less forthcoming mood. Curled on a couch in just a bathrobe, while being made up for a final 11pm TV interview, she responded tersely to a question about visiting the US so close to the Russian presidential elections. Why not garner votes at home first, then make the risky political overtures? “Because I don’t want to play by [the Kremlin’s] rules—that we’re all afraid of them, of how they’ll show us on TV,” she said.

Her campaign for the Russian presidency is, in theory, a straight-up protest candidacy, with the slogan, “Sobchak against all.” She has acknowledged that she cannot win the Russian election, which she calls rigged. Votes for her, she says, will amount to a message from Russians who want to express general dissatisfaction with Russia’s dire economy, pervasive corruption and crackdowns on civil society.

But while Sobchak may claim to offer a voice to unhappy Russians everywhere, the truth is her liberal views are certain to alienate many voters.

She keeps criticizing Crimea, for example, even though Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula was incredibly popular, sending his net approval rating up to around 70% from the mid-20s the year prior. Crimea “isn’t what worries people—they’re a lot more worried about their housing, about poverty, poor wages,” Sobchak responded to this. “My goal is to show them the link between their low wages and bad housing and the huge money that’s now being spent on Crimea and the sanctions that affect their levels of pay.”

The other motivation for her campaign, Sobchak says, is the chance to go on state TV and give new perspectives to what she calls a “brainwashed” population. That means supporting LGBT rights, decrying Crimea, and calling for marijuana to be legalized in order to stem Russia’s intravenous drug epidemic. “I don’t care if someone doesn’t like it because I want people to start thinking in a different way about things,” she tells the Columbia audience.

When I ask what she says to the oft-made accusation that the Kremlin won’t mind criticism coming from someone they can caricature as an elite socialite, Sobchak remains unbothered, telling me: “I’m saying what I really think I should say. My voters, my core audience, are young people in Russia, so I actually do what I need to have their support.” Earlier this week, on the CSIS think tank’s Russian Roulette podcast, Sobchak joked, “Even if we imagine I’m a Kremlin project, then I’m a good Kremlin project because I’m saying out things that have not been said before.”

What Sobchak really wants

When Frye asked what result she’s actually aiming for, Sobchak was evasive. Would it be achievement enough to beat the 4% vote achieved by Irina Khakamada in 2004, the only previous Russian female presidential candidate?

“It’s not for me a real election, so any talk of some percentage is absurd,” she says, referring to the constant accusations of electoral fraud that mar Russian votes.

But this figure matters in her larger plan, the pallidly named Civic Initiative movement. A decent showing on March 18 would bring momentum, she hopes, to corall the opposition around the party in the 2021 parliamentary elections. Getting people elected there would then give the opposition some influence over how the Kremlin decide who takes over the presidency in 2024, when Putin will be due to step aside. That year, Sobchak could run for election again, with a greater chance of winning. Or she could agree on a consensus candidate like Putin’s former finance minister, liberal technocrat Alexei Kudrin. It’s heady, and deeply optimistic, stuff.

When I return to the question back at the Four Seasons, she acknowledges she needs a decent final turnout to create actual political influence in the long-term. “The bigger the number we get at the elections, the easier it will be to build a party—if it’s minimal, then building a party will be tough,” she says.

Is she worried that the last poll by state-run VTsIOM only put her at 1.3%—and that most analysts don’t expect her to do much better than that? “We’ll see, there’s still a month until the elections. I don’t think it’ll be that small,” she says.

When oligarch Mikhail Prokohorov, once Russia’s richest man, played the role of Kremlin-sanctioned liberal candidate in 2012, he picked up a respectable 8% of the vote. Sobchak isn’t helped, however, by the fact that the perennially-divided opposition is deeply split about the election. Its other leading figure, anti-corruption blogger Alexey Navalny, called for a boycott of the vote after he was barred from running.

The two have worked together for years, but carried out a public spat in recent months. This week, Navalny accused her of falsifying 99% of the signatures required to get her name on the ballot. When Frye asked her about the falling out, Sobchak, who generally avoids talking about gender, quipped “with men it’s always like this in Russia—they always want to be the head of everything.”

Her hope, she continued, is that the opposition can all club together after the election.

What happens after the Russian elections?

Many who doubt the motives for Sobchak’s candidacy say she may have been persuaded to run by the chance to return to state television, after six long years exiled to the little-watched independent TV Rain. Would she take a job on Kremlin TV?

“I’ll take any chance I can to spread my views, but I don’t think there will be offers like that,” she says.

And does she think she’ll be running for the presidency again in six years? “It’s a very big time period,” she deadpans. “Ten years ago there weren’t iPhones!”

“You understand how the world changes in ten years. You’re now trying to talk to me about what will be happening in six years—I don’t know but I’ll be trying with all my strength to really fight for power.”

With that, Sobchak bounces off her couch, gives a smiling thank you, and goes off to dress for CNN.