MOSCOW: Russian celebrity TV host Ksenia Sobchak, who wants to challenge Russian President Vladimir Putin in the March 18 presidential election, speaks to media as she submits boxes containing signatures in support of her candidacy in the Central Election Commission in Moscow, Russia, on Jan 31.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top foe in next month’s election isn’t a candidate; it’s public apathy.
But he has one rival who could draw voters to the polls, said the celebrity TV host Ksenia Sobchak.
With her glamour, sharp wit and defiant ways, Sobchak are both loved and loathed — and maybe is just the candidate the Kremlin needs to give the March 18 election the veneer of legitimacy it so desires.
“My popularity is huge,” the 36-year-old said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m the only person … known to all Russian people like Putin. There is no one else in the country that is as well-known as me.”
Her campaign slogan, “Sobchak against all,” promotes her as the choice of those who are tired of the same old candidates who ran against Putin before.
She also has no chance of winning, not when Putin enjoys a job approval rating of more than 80 per cent and gets fawning coverage on state-run national TV.
In addition to boosting turnout to make a Putin victory look more impressive, Kremlin strategists also hope that Sobchak will peel away at least some supporters of his most vocal foe, anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, to help split the opposition’s ranks.
Navalny has been barred from running because of a criminal conviction that is widely seen as politically motivated for challenging Putin’s rule. Many of his supporters accuse Sobchak of serving as a Kremlin-sponsored spoiler in the race.
While Navalny has called for boycotting the vote and challenged the authorities with unsanctioned protests, Sobchak argues that his strategy won’t succeed.
“Navalny is a big hero, but he chose a way where he would either be put in jail or he would be marginalised,” she said.
“I don’t want the revolution in my country,” she said. “The only way to change Russia without blood is evolution.”
Sobchak, who is the daughter of Putin’s late patron, the former mayor of St Petersburg, rejects accusations of any collusion with the Kremlin.
When she entered the race, Sobchak admitted that she had told Putin about her intention to run, but denied that she was following Kremlin orders.
She maintains that she joined the race to draw attention to the acutest issues and promote liberal values.
“What I do is good for Russian opposition,” she said. “What I do is I speak freely on the things and items that were never discussed loudly with Russian public for years. And I think this is actually the most positive thing that can be done during those elections.”
She certainly isn’t afraid of criticising Putin’s government, lambasting it with an ardour that even some of its fiercest opponents would envy.
In the AP interview, Sobchak said she believes Russian hackers working with the government interfered in the 2016 US presidential election — something the Kremlin has steadfastly denied.
While she qualified her statement by saying she doesn’t have any facts to prove it and bases her view on news reports, her words were in stark contrast with Kremlin denials.
In another salvo at the Kremlin, she described the list of Russian officials and tycoons put together by the administration of President Donald Trump in compliance with US sanctions law as a slipshod job, saying it unfairly includes some tycoons who have no connections to the Kremlin but misses some key figures.
Asked if she would go as far as to track down Putin’s alleged personal fortune, she said: “Of course, if this fortune is found, I think it should be brought back to the state.”
But many political observers are sceptical of her positions, saying she is merely imitating a liberal pro-reform agenda.
“Sobchak has very high anti-rating. She is not popular among a lot of average Russians, and when she says something liberal it means discrediting liberal ideas in the eyes of average Russians so in this sense, the Kremlin is in a win-win situation.
She has challenged the government on many issues, criticising Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s the Crimean Peninsula, calling Western sanctions a due punishment for that, and assailing the government’s treatment of dissent.
Last weekend, Sobchak made a brief foray to Chechnya, where she protested the jailing of a human rights campaigner. Sceptics argued that her visit could only happen if the Kremlin signalled to regional strongman Ramzan Kadyrov that he should stand back.
On her trip to Chechnya, Sobchak got a late start and wound up spending only about two hours in Chechnya, travelling in a convoy of shiny white SUVs with a heavy security force that contrasted with the impoverished surroundings of empty roadside cafes and ramshackle houses.
“I think that she has a chance of winning,” said 22-year-old Kamila Khautieva, after talking to Sobchak.
Many other Russians are sceptical.
“‘Sobchak against all,’ I know her slogan,” said 20-year-old university student Elizaveta Nikitenko in Moscow. “It sounds very aggressive. It’s not our thing; we need other slogans that mean compromise and good deeds.”
In the AP interview, Sobchak said that “I’m positively sure you won’t find a single person on the streets of Russia who don’t know who is Ksenia Sobchak, maybe babies 3 months old,” she said, adding that she hopes to repeat the “Trump effect.”
“Many people would vote for me, I’m quite sure because I’m working in this industry for more than 15 years (and) I know the rules of how the brand works,” she said.
“And this is actually my main idea why this should work because we all know (the) ‘Trump effect,'” Sobchak said. “I hope for it. This is why I went on it.”