MOSCOW – A Russian celebrity TV host shook up the country’s political scene Wednesday by announcing her presidential bid, a move that would likely boost public interest in the race but could further fragment the nation’s beleaguered opposition.
Ksenia Sobchak, 35, announced her intention to become a candidate in March’s election in a YouTube video, arguing that Russia has grown tired of its current political elite and needs a change.
Sobchak, the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the reformist St. Petersburg mayor in the early 1990s, first became known as a socialite and a fashion icon before she launched her successful TV career.
Sharp-tongued and witty, Sobchak has been often critical of the Russian government. She joined anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in 2011-2012 but has largely avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin, who once worked as her father’s deputy.
Putin, 65, hasn’t yet said whether he will seek re-election on March 18 but he’s widely expected to run. With approval ratings topping 80 percent, Putin would win in landslide against torpid veterans of past Russian presidential campaigns, like Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky or liberal Grigory Yavlinsky. They have all signaled their intentions to run again in 2018.
Sobchak told Dozhd TV that she had warned Putin that she planned to join the race while interviewing him recently for a documentary about her father.
“I had an impression he didn’t like it,” she said of Putin’s reaction.
Some pundits, however, said Sobchak’s candidacy should please the Kremlin, helping counter growing voter apathy without posing a threat to Putin. Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned that Sobchak’s bid would further fragment and weaken Russia’s opposition.
When rumors about Sobchak’s intentions first appeared recently, Russia’s most popular opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, warned her on YouTube that she would play into the Kremlin’s hands if she enters the race. Navalny is currently serving a 20-day jail term for organizing an unsanctioned protest.
Navalny has also declared his intention to enter Russia’s presidential race, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from running. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organized a grassroots campaign across Russia to support his nomination. It has organized waves of protests this year, putting pressure on the Kremlin.
“They need a cartoonish liberal candidate at a time when they don’t want to allow me to enter the race,” Navalny said in a warning to Sobchak.
Sobchak has rejected Navalny’s criticism, saying that if he is allowed to run she would consider withdrawing her candidacy in his favor. She has cast herself as a “candidate against all,” appealing to broad public dismay with Russia’s tightly-controlled and corrupt political system.
Like other self-nominated candidates, Sobchak needs to gather 300,000 signatures to get registered for the race. Those nominated by parties represented in parliament don’t need to do that.
The candidates haven’t reached the formal registration stage so there is no exact count of their number yet.
Sobchak wouldn’t discuss possible sources of funding for her campaign in a nation as vast as Russia, but her high-level connections in Russia’s business world could help her bid.