There are few doubts that Russia’s March 2018 presidential election will hand President Vladimir Putin a fourth term, though he has yet to say he will run. But the announcement by Ksenia Sobchak, a liberal journalist and the daughter of Putin’s political mentor, of her candidacy this week has injected some intrigue into the race -- and accusations that the Kremlin is pulling out old tricks to add a veneer of legitimacy to the ballot.
Each of Russia’s last two presidential elections has featured candidates running on liberal platforms who were widely accused by critics of serving as faux opposition politicians in campaigns carefully stage-managed by the Kremlin to give the appearance of true competition.
Political observers and opposition figures reacted to Sobchak's October 18 declaration by suggesting she would play a role similar to the candidacies of billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov in the 2012 election and veteran political operative Andrei Bogdanov in 2008.
“A rather ignoble end,” opposition journalist Roman Dobrokhotov wrote on Twitter. “She won’t get the protest vote. She’ll only get the reputation of a circus poodle like Bogdanov.”
A prominent Russian Freemason, Bogdanov was one of four registered candidates in the 2008 presidential election won by Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s current prime minister who served a four-year term in the Kremlin with Putin as his premier.
Bogdanov’s campaign, which called for greater integration with Europe, was widely seen as Kremlin window dressing to show that liberal candidates can run for the presidency in Russia as well.
Veteran liberal politician Grigory Yavlinsky wrote on Twitter that Sobchak is “Prokhorov 2018,” a reference to the tycoon’s candidacy in the 2012 election that Putin won in a landslide.
“It’s clear where this is coming from,” Yavlinsky wrote.
Prokhorov repeatedly rejected accusations that his candidacy was merely an effort to lend legitimacy to Putin’s reelection.
Opposition activist Sergei Udaltsov said one could see the Kremlin’s fingerprints on Sobchak’s presidential bid “a mile away.”
Sobchak’s announcement, in which she portrayed herself as an “against-all” protest candidate, was preceded by a public spat with opposition leader Aleksei Navalny. After rumors of her possible presidential run surfaced last month, Navalny said Sobchak would be a “caricature liberal candidate.”
Some political analysts say Sobchak will help the Kremlin by serving as a milquetoast stand-in for Navalny, a fierce Kremlin critic seeking to run in the election. Officials have said Navalny is ineligible to run due to his financial-crimes conviction in one of two cases he says authorities fabricated as retribution for his activism.
Kirill Rogov, a senior research fellow at the Moscow-based Gaidar Institute for Economic Policy, wrote that Sobchak, who took part in large-scale antigovernment protests in 2011 and 2012, would likely back a “softened and airbrushed” version of Navalny’s platform.
Her candidacy will ostensibly demonstrate “that it’s possible to engage in opposition activities in Russia,” Rogov wrote in an October 19 blog post.
“This will work to legitimize the presidential race and Putin’s ultimate victory,” he wrote.
‘Putin Is A Thief’ Or ‘Constructive Opposition’?
Sobchak did receive some words of welcome from Russia’s liberal political camp. Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov wrote that he is in favor of allowing “all candidates” on the ballot, including her, Navalny, and Yavlinsky, who is seeking to run as the candidate from the liberal Yabloko party.
“If her audience finds out that ‘Putin is a thief,’ then even better,” Gudkov wrote on Facebook, quoting one of Navalny’s key political mantras.
“The main question is whether Ksenia will want to say that or embody the ‘constructive’ opposition,” he added, a reference to nominal opposition parties that generally side with the Kremlin on key issues.
The Kremlin and its loyalists also delivered seemingly positive statements on her potential candidacy. Shortly before her announcement, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted by Russian media as saying that she is a “very talented person,” adding that “politics is very different from journalism and show business.”
Yevgeny Revenko, a federal lawmaker with the ruling United Russia party, wrote in a Facebook post with the headline We Have A Candidate that “the richer the election palette, the better.”
Sobchak told Russia’s independent TV channel Dozhd that she had recently met with Putin personally and informed him of her decision to run, saying this “did not make [Putin] happy.”
Russian journalist Oleg Kashin, a respected observer of the country’s political landscape, also likened Sobchak’s candidacy to Prokhorov’s, adding that by 2024 -- when the following Russian presidential election is scheduled -- she could be a “respected politician.”
He added that her candidacy suggests “Putin doesn’t like victories only over [Gennady] Zyuganov and [Vladimir] Zhirinovsky,” referring to the veteran leaders of the Communist and Liberal Democratic parties, respectively. Both parties generally toe the Kremlin line on major issues.
The Kremlin, meanwhile, is denying that it played any role in Sobchak’s stated presidential bid.
Asked whether the presidential administration was involved in her campaign, Peskov was quoted by the state-run TASS news agency as saying on October 19: “That is not the case.”
"Ksenia did not coordinate this decision with Putin or the presidential administration," TASS quoted Peskov as saying.