On June 12, 1999, Anatoly Sobchak returned home after 1 1/2 years in self-imposed exile in Paris.
The former St. Petersburg mayor, and principal author of the Russian Constitution, left the country in November 1997 in the midst of a corruption investigation that he and his allies insisted was -- and according to most impartial accounts appeared to be -- politically motivated.
Sobchak's return from exile coincided with the meteoric rise of his former deputy and close political ally, Vladimir Putin. A year earlier, Putin became director of the Federal Security Service (FSB). A few months before Sobchak's homecoming, his friend and former deputy was named secretary of the Security Council. Two months later, Putin would be named prime minister, serving for just several months before succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president.
The conventional wisdom at the time was that Sobchak, who died in February 2000, was able to safely return to Russia because he enjoyed the ascendant Putin's protection.
As a reporter in St. Petersburg at the time, I covered Sobchak's flamboyant and emotional arrival at the city's Pulkovo Airport. One of the enduring memories I have of that day was of Sobchak's 17-year-old daughter Ksenia impatiently pulling on his arm in a vain attempt to get her famously talkative father to stop engaging journalists and get in the car already.
Fast forward to June 12, 2012, exactly 13 years later.
That impatient 17-year-old girl is now a confident 30-year-old who has seamlessly transformed herself from a socialite reality-show star into one of Russia's most visible social activists. And she is being questioned by agents from the Investigative Committee over her opposition political activities. A day earlier, her apartment was searched by Investigative Committee agents, who confiscated large sums of cash.
Due to her family's ties to Putin, it was always assumed that, unlike other opposition figures -- but like her father -- Ksenia Sobchak enjoyed a degree of protection. Now everybody is reassessing that assumption.
Writing in the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" last week, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky suggested it was Sobchak -- and not Aleksei Navalny, Ilya Yashin, or Sergei Udaltsov, whose flats were also searched -- who was the operation's real target:
And today, Putin upped the ante against his old friend's daughter (and make no mistake, none of this would be happening without Putin giving the green light).
A June 18 article in the pro-Kremlin daily "Izvestia" quoted anonymous law enforcement sources as saying that Sobchak could be prosecuted for tax evasion over the estimated 1 million euros and $500,000 in cash agents seized from her apartment during last week's raid.
The report quoted unidentified Interior Ministry officials as saying that Sobchak's 2011 tax declaration reported 6.7 million rubles ($210,000) in income. Her 2010 declaration, according to the daily, reported 4.53 million rubles.
The authorities are clearly trying to drive a wedge between Sobchak and the rest of the opposition by stirring up resentment of her wealth. And there is some evidence it is working. On June 15, Ilya Ponomaryov, an opposition State Duma deputy from the center-left A Just Russia, asked her to distance herself from the protest movement.
Sobchak, however, is showing no signs of lowering her profile. Writing on her Twitter feed, Sobchak responded to the allegations. "For many years my tax returns have reported not less than $1 million in income," she wrote in one tweet, calling the report "lies and slander designed to provoke me."
In another, she wrote that after consulting her lawyer, Henry Reznik, she has decided to sue "Izvestia" over the article.
And in an article published later in the day on June 18 on "Komsomolskaya pravda's" website, she reiterated that she has paid taxes on all her income. She also noted that the smears against her were reminiscent of those against her father in the 1990s.
Sobchak also attacked the Kremlin's apparent strategy against her at its core:
Ksenia Sobchak has again passed into new territory. In the months after the disputed State Duma elections in December, she turned herself into a serious political player with the opposition -- albeit one who everybody assumed enjoyed protected status. Now she will need to play that role without a "krysha."
-- Brian Whitmore