Russian journalist and TV personality Ksenia Sobchak has dismissed calls by a barred opposition leader for an election boycott as "pointless" and said her candidacy in the March presidential vote could help fuse opposition elements into a legitimate political force in Russia.
In an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Idel.Realii during a campaign stop in Kazan, Sobchak dismissed criticism that her unlikely challenge amounted to Kremlin-friendly window dressing for an election that is virtually guaranteed to hand incumbent President Vladimir Putin a fourth term on March 18.
In fact, she said, it could pave the way for further political action including in parliament, where Putin allies dominate.
"If, as a result [of my candidacy], I have an opportunity to unite forces and create a strong, just party and enter the [State] Duma with it, then I think I'll have done something meaningful for my country," Sobchak said.
Those who suspect the Kremlin's hand in Sobchak's presidential bid point to Putin's close ties to Sobchak's late father, who as mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s is credited with helping launch the political career of the former Soviet-era KGB officer whose grip on national power has been largely unrivaled since 2000.
The 36-year-old Sobchak is routinely described as a "socialite" in Russian media, and once featured in television shows like Russia's equivalent of Big Brother and A Blonde In Chocolate, in which she cursed and appeared drunk. She has also been on the cover of the Russian version of Playboy magazine.
But Sobchak has also been critical of some Kremlin policies and called for democratic changes, although prior to her candidacy she generally appeared careful not to mention Putin by name in her criticism. Sobchak also took part in large-scale antigovernment protests organized after what were seen as flawed national elections in 2011 and 2012.
Some have suggested that Sobchak could serve as a milder version of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny, the anti-corruption lawyer and fierce Putin detractor who splashed onto the national scene during those same street protests.
Navalny has since served jail time for what he says were trumped-up charges and was this month disqualified from running for president because of his criminal conviction.
He has called for voters to boycott the March 18 presidential election as a contest between "Putin and his hand-picked candidates" and has dismissed Sobchak's candidacy as "unserious."
Some speculate that Sobchak could play a legitimizing electoral role similar to that of billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov in the 2012 election or veteran political operative Andrei Bogdanov in 2008, neither of whom landed any solid political punches against Putin or his chosen candidate for a four-year interregnum, Dmitry Medvedev.
Sobchak told RFE/RL on December 28 that such a strategy was "pointless," saying Russia has no minimum turnout threshold for an election anyways.
"A boycott: Well, you can stay home and the president will be elected even with 10 percent turnout," Sobchak said.
Sobchak said that while she regards Navalny as an "absolute hero," she believes he is pursuing a "suicidal path."
"The gang of people around the president have at their disposal huge reserves of money, other resources, the army, the [Federal Security Service, or FSB], all the security services, etcetera. A direct fight with them is possible, but it is suicidal," Sobchak said.
"I really fear for Navalny’s life. The balance of forces is not equal at all. They will never relinquish power."
One of Putin's most strident opposition critics in the past, former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, was gunned down on a bridge near the Kremlin in 2015.
After rumors of Sobchak's possible presidential run surfaced in September, Navalny said Sobchak would be a "caricature liberal candidate."
Sobchak, who was formally nominated for the race on December 23 by a liberal party, the Civic Initiative, predicted to RFE/RL in Kazan that the confrontational approach favored by Navalny won’t work in the long run.
"Only peaceful [sanctioned] protest will work, but it will take more time," Sobchak said.
Russian authorities were accused of ruthlessly pruning critical media outlets during Putin's first two terms in the Kremlin, from 1999 to 2008, and a phalanx of legal obstacles has been erected during his third term to limit public expressions of dissent.
Sobchak dismissed those who say the Kremlin has allowed her into the race in order to bump up voter turnout and add an air of legitimacy to the ballot.
"I think this is nonsense, just made up. I don't like that our opposition monopolist -- that's how Navalny refers to himself -- first backed the position 'vote for any party except United Russia' and spoke against boycotts, and now he's flip flopped," Sobchak said.
Sobchak said Putin and others would be wrong to dismiss her challenge.
"Maybe Putin thinks, 'Well, listen, she's a girl. I knew her dad. Well, she's not particularly dangerous," Sobchak said. "He doesn't consider me, as opposed to Navalny, a dangerous competitor. Why not. Let's find out."
Other veterans of past elections like liberal Grigory Yavlinsky and ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky are also running. The Communists nominated a new candidate, Pavel Grudinin, director of a big strawberry farm just outside Moscow, instead of longtime party chief Gennady Zyuganov.
Written by RFE/RL's Tony Wesolowsky in Prague based on an interview by Idel.Realii's Vadim Meshcheryakov in Kazan