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As Putin Cruises, Navalny And Sobchak Spar In Election-Day Standoff

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny (left) and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak in happier times
Opposition leader Alexei Navalny (left) and presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak in happier times

Kremlin critics say the Russian election was a show, with President Vladimir Putin's victory the dully predictable final act. On election day, Aleksei Navalny and Ksenia Sobchak provided a far livelier sideshow -- but it may have done little to help the opposition's cause.

Shortly before polls closed in Moscow on March 18, Sobchak showed up at Navalny's headquarters and -- in an exchange broadcast live on the opposition leader's YouTube channel -- proposed that they join forces.

The result was not pretty:​

Navalny rejected Sobchak's offer, using stark language to reiterate his accusation that she only helped the Kremlin slap a veneer of democracy on an election he has dismissed for months as "the reappointment of Vladimir Putin."

Navalny, who was barred from the ballot due to a financial-crimes conviction he contends was fabricated by the Kremlin, accused Sobchak of "endlessly lying" and said that everything she does is "repulsive."

Sobchak defended her decision to run and said it was Navalny who took the wrong approach to the election by calling for a boycott.

The bitter exchange underlined the rifts that have plagued Russia's opposition since Putin came to power in 2000 -- and that seem to run particularly deep between two of Russia's most prominent young politicians.

Navalny, 41, and Sobchak, 36, both hit the streets for large opposition protests in 2011-12, when tens of thousands of people turned out to voice anger over a fraud-marred parliamentary election and Putin's decision to return to the presidency after a stint as prime minister.

But they crossed swords repeatedly ahead of the March 18 election that handed Putin a fourth presidential term, with Navalny urging Russians to stay away from the voting and Sobchak becoming one of seven candidates rounding out the ballot.

Sobchak, who Navalny suggested had invited herself over to his headquarters, urged him to join a new political party she is hoping to create along with opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov, a former lawmaker.

"The opposition is divided. We need unity, despite [our] different views," Sobchak said.

"Ksenia, you yourself are a part of the lying, falsifying scheme that barred me from the election," Navalny said, taunting Sobchak by asking whether she had "sent a telegram" to Putin reporting that she had cast her ballot.

He also claimed that she had come to his home "at 2 a.m." one night and told him that she had been offered "huge money" to run in the election.

"That's not true," Sobchak replied. "I did not say that. I proposed nominating a joint candidate."

The bickering on election day had the potential to loosen Kremlin opponents' focus on aspects of the vote they say undermined Putin's win, including alleged fraud and pressure put on vulnerable citizens -- such as state workers -- to cast their ballots.

The Kremlin has clearly been hoping for high turnout to bolster Putin's legitimacy in what could be his last presidential term.

Pavel Lobkov, a presenter on the liberal Russian Internet TV station Dozhd, said that the on-air battle may have aided the Kremlin by drawing attention away from reports of violations that had lit up social networks during the voting.

At the same time, following a campaign that was widely seen as a rote rehearsal for a vote whose result was never in doubt, on some level it may have come across as a refreshingly serious debate.

It came against the backdrop of raucous, mudslinging televised campaign debates on state-controlled television, which echoed trash TV and ended up portraying Putin -- by his sheer absence -- as being above the unsightly fray.

With reporting by Current Time TV, RFE/RL's Russian Service, Meduza, and Dozhd
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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.

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