Pol­i­tics

Rus­sia’s Trump

Newsweek International - - NEWS - BY OWEN MATTHEWS @owen­matth

isn’t your usual pres­i­den­tial can­di­date’s so­cial me­dia feed. Snapshots of five-star ho­tel break­fasts, self­ies of Sobchak hang­ing out in a he­li­copter and fash­ion shots of the blond so­cialite pos­ing in a di­aphanous se­quined dress don’t ex­actly sug­gest a per­son ready to wrest power from Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. Yet in late Oc­to­ber, the 35-year-old for­mer re­al­ity-tv pre­sen­ter and Play­boy cover girl de­clared she would stand against Putin in next year’s elec­tions as the can­di­date of not only Rus­sia’s lib­eral, West­ern-lean­ing in­tel­li­gentsia but also, as Sobchak puts it in a cam­paign video, “ev­ery­one who is fed up with the thiev­ing and abuse of power.”

Sobchak’s cam­paign is more than just po­lit­i­cal—it’s per­sonal. Her late fa­ther, Ana­toly Sobchak, was mayor of St. Peters­burg in the early 1990s, and one of his deputies was an un­known for­mer KGB lieu­tenant-colonel named Vladimir Putin. Sobchak se­nior’s ad­min­is­tra­tion was a bea­con of West­ern-style re­form—and Putin was the be­hind-the-scenes fixer for Rus­sia’s most lib­eral city govern­ment. “There’s no ques­tion that [Putin] betrayed her fa­ther’s legacy,” says a close friend of Kse­nia Sobchak. “Her po­lit­i­cal ca­reer is, for her, a way of hon­or­ing his mem­ory.”

Sobchak has known Putin and his fam­ily since her early child­hood. Though the per­sis­tent ru­mor that Putin was her god­fa­ther isn’t true, she is one of the few peo­ple in Rus­sian pol­i­tics to have known Putin since he was a near-no­body. As re­cently as Septem­ber, Sobchak was able to meet Putin, in­ter­view­ing him for a tele­vi­sion pro­gram she is mak­ing about her fa­ther. Af­ter the cam­eras stopped rolling, she spoke to Putin about her planned pres­i­den­tial run—not to ask per­mis­sion, by her own ac­count, but be­cause she “thought it was the right thing to tell him to his face that I plan to stand against him.”

Many Rus­sian lib­er­als ac­cuse Sobchak of be­ing a stooge—a to­ken, tame can­di­date play­ing the Krem­lin’s game. The real leader of Rus­sia’s lib­eral op­po­si­tion, anti-cor­rup­tion fire­brand Alexei Navalny, has been blocked from run­ning, os­ten­si­bly be­cause of a string of con­vic­tions for or­ga­niz­ing un­sanc­tioned protests. In re­al­ity, the Krem­lin judged Navalny too dan­ger­ous a can­di­date “not be­cause he would win but be­cause of what he would say if given air­time” on state-con­trolled TV, says Mark Ga­le­otti, a se­nior re­searcher at the In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Re­la­tions in Prague. “You have to re­mem­ber that many of [Putin’s ad­min­is­tra­tion] re­mem­ber glas­nost all too well—they saw what hap­pened when the Com­mu­nist Party al­lowed the op­po­si­tion the free­dom to kick away foun­da­tions of the regime.”

Sobchak, by that logic, is a safer can­di­date. “The Krem­lin is try­ing to find safer ways to sex up the [pres­i­den­tial] cam­paign—and Sobchak is ideal,” says Ga­le­otti. “She’s dab­bled enough in op­po­si­tion pol­i­tics. But I can’t see her...rip­ping into cor­rup­tion, nam­ing names, dis­cussing crooked deals. Whether there’s an ex­plicit deal or not, she is a prod­uct of the elite. She un­der­stands the rules of the game and is able to stay just on the right side of the line.”

None­the­less, Sobchak has had her run-ins with the au­thor­i­ties. She was a prom­i­nent leader of the wave of protests that fol­lowed Putin’s re­turn to the pres­i­dency in 2012—masked po­lice raided her apart­ment, and in­ves­ti­ga­tors threat­ened her with tax eva­sion charges. Putin “is some­one who di­vides peo­ple into ‘with us’

and ‘against us,’” Sobchak told Newsweek at the time. “I re­spect him as a per­son. He has done a lot for Rus­sia…. But he prob­a­bly be­lieves that I am no longer ‘with him,’ and I am feel­ing the con­se­quences of that now.”

The charge that Sobchak is in some way still “with” Putin has been en­cour­aged by the Krem­lin, with Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov de­scrib­ing her as a “tal­ented per­son” who “ful­filled all cri­te­ria” to run for pres­i­dent. Sobchak calls the praise a spoil­ing tac­tic. “The au­thor­i­ties have de­cided to suf­fo­cate me with af­fec­tion,” Sobchak re­cently told

The Guardian. “It’s a very clever tac­tic. They’re do­ing ev­ery­thing to make it look like we’re to­gether.”

Her cam­paign videos give no in­di­ca­tion she will be soft on Putin. Sobchak slams Rus­sia’s “col­laps­ing ed­u­ca­tion and health care sys­tems” and “mon­strous cor­rup­tion and pro­pa­ganda” in a care­fully pro­duced video filmed in her de­signer kitchen. “Peo­ple in power con­tinue to steal. Priests and po­lice tell us what to read and think,” she says. “If we don’t do some­thing, we will be ar­rested for our views...and our chil­dren will grow up dream­ing of leav­ing the coun­try.”

Sobchak’s trump card is her fame, af­ter years of pre­sent­ing re­al­ity TV shows—in­clud­ing the Big Brother clone Dom-2—and her sta­tus as a sta­ple of gos­sip mag­a­zines. Polls say she en­joys a 95 per­cent name-recog­ni­tion rat­ing, says Sobchak ad­viser An­ton Krasovsky, a for­mer cam­paign man­ager for bil­lion­aire Mikhail Prokhorov, whose 2012 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was widely seen as Krem­lin-sanc­tioned. “No­body apart from Putin him­self has that kind of recog­ni­tion. She is like Don­ald Trump—she spent her whole life be­com­ing a pub­lic fig­ure.” By com­par­i­son, Navalny has “of­fi­cially 5 per­cent name recog­ni­tion, which is prob­a­bly in re­al­ity closer to 15 per­cent,” ac­cord­ing to Krasovsky.

Navalny has a spiky re­la­tion­ship with Sobchak. When she re­cently in­ter­viewed him for the in­ter­net-based op­po­si­tion TV chan­nel TV Rain, he coldly squashed her for mix­ing up a name. Navalny has yet to en­dorse her can­di­dacy and is still run­ning his own cam­paign. Even with­out his back­ing, Sobchak may prove to be a more dif­fi­cult can­di­date than Putin bar­gained for. “Sobchak breaks the fourth wall—she can ad­dress vot­ers di­rectly and ex­pose the stitch-up that is Rus­sian pol­i­tics,” says Ga­le­otti. “She could be more cor­ro­sive than the Krem­lin ex­pects.”

“The Krem­lin is try­ing to find safer ways to sex up the [pres­i­den­tial] cam­paign—and Sobchak is ideal.”

VY­ING AGAINST VLAD Sobchak, left, has known Putin and his fam­ily for decades through her fa­ther, Ana­toly, op­po­site. And some claim that Navalny, be­low, is the real leader of the op­po­si­tion.

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