With Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin almost certain to run in the upcoming presidential ballot and secure another term in office, attention has focused on an intriguing subplot to the election story: the candidacy of television celebrity Xenia Sobchak. As the first non-Kremlin puppet to take part in an election for 20 years, she could deal a blow to the political aspirations of leading Putin critic and anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny.
Sobchak threw her hat into the ring last month, with some suspicious that the move had been hatched by the Kremlin to split the opposition and present the ballot as a competitive vote. Sobchak, whose father, former St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, was Putin’s political mentor, has dismissed the speculation. She acknowledges that she has no chance of winning the election – describing it as a “high-budget show” – but insists that she is mounting a genuine campaign, dubbing herself the “protest candidate”.
Several factors suggest she is her own woman: her oppositional pedigree and criticism of the government’s record – in particular the intervention in Ukraine, and the absence of free elections – and the Kremlin’s apparent attempts to discredit her.
Before she announced that she intended to stand, sources close to the presidential administration sought to cast her as a puppet. They whispered to the media that a female candidate was being sought to challenge Putin in the elections. Later other sources suggested that this person might be Sobchak, then the President’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov spoke positively about her possible candidacy. It all suggests that Putin’s inner circle wanted to place her in an uncomfortable position, and sow the seeds of doubt about her intentions in Russian and Western media.
As she attempts to reassure voters, Navalny has troubles of his own. A trumped up embezzlement conviction prevents him from standing, but he will campaign with typical determination nonetheless. Navalny has his eyes not on these elections but the next ones in 2024. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen then. Putin will be required by the constitution to step down, though it is unclear whether the contest to succeed him will be any less compromised than the one in March. Navalny will hope that he will at least be permitted to run. His immediate concern is that a confident, assertive Sobchak could further marginalise him in the interim.
Navalny has long been a thorn in Putin’s side. He has dismissed the ruling elite as “crooks and scoundrels” to the delight of his youthful supporters, who believe their future is being undermined by a corrupt leadership determined to thwart political and economic reform. Putin has employed bureaucratic and judicial ruses to break Navalny, but Russia’s very own ‘angry young man’ has remained a political player by circumventing the Kremlin’s monopoly on information.
Though banned from – and ridiculed by – Putin-controlled state television, the main source of information for the majority of Russians, Navalny has been able to address his followers through a Youtube channel watched by millions. The platform has helped him to build up a nationwide network of regional headquarters and tens of thousands of volunteers. His anti-Putin rallies, many unsanctioned, continue to attract supporters despite heavy-handed police tactics. But recently the number attending the demonstrations has declined.
There are growing concerns amongst Navalny supporters over the direction and ultimate goal of his campaigning. Barred from elections and embroiled in a seemingly perpetual conflict with the state, some are beginning to wonder whether he has a strategy beyond endless protest. He struck a chord with millions of young Russians when he first emerged, yet the vast majority of voters still know little about him or, under the influence of state propaganda, view him as a Western agent intent on destabilising the country.
Now some followers are raising questions about the value of the continuous cycle of protests and arrests. The novelty of it all, it seems, is beginning to lose its appeal. Navalny loyalists have displayed great courage in turning up for unsanctioned rallies in the knowledge that they risk being bundled into police squad cars. However, they need to see that there is a purpose behind such sacrifices. At the moment, there does not appear to be one.
In advance of the presidential elections, Sobchak is unlikely to criticise Navalny or exploit regime slurs, as they have long been friends and allies. She has in the past shared platforms with him and campaigned for his release from jail. Sobchak insists that she only decided to become a candidate because Navalny is not allowed to take part, having earlier suggested that his wife, Yulia Navalnaya, could run instead of him.
Yet, conveniently for the Kremlin, there is a strong possibility that Sobchak will draw away at least some of Navalny’s supporters: those losing faith in him and others preferring a less confrontational approach towards the authorities. It will help Sobchak that she has much higher name recognition than Navalny, and her candidacy has already been the subject of discussion on popular late night TV talk shows.
Her campaign theme is also compelling. As the “protest candidate”, she argues that a vote for her is a “vote against everyone”. In effect, Sobchak is inviting those sceptical of the fairness of elections in their country to back her, in order to demonstrate the extent of anti-Putin sentiment – something that might appeal to many Russians. That all bodes well for Sobchak’s campaign, and if she were to secure a significant proportion of the vote – say 15 per cent – she could supplant Navalny as the effective leader of the opposition.
Yigal Chazan is an Associate and Nicolae Reutoi a Senior Analyst at Alaco. Alaco Dispatches is the business intelligence consultancy’s take on events and developments shaping the CIS region.