Ksenia Sobchak, the Russian socialite, TV personality, opposition activist, and daughter of a former St. Petersburg mayor, says she will run in Russia’s presidential election in March, a challenge to President Vladimir Putin, who is widely expected to run for reelection.
In a short video posted to her Instagram account and her website on October 18, Sobchak said her candidacy would serve as a way to cast a protest vote, a "vote against all," she said -- a reference to a feature that was common on many Russian election ballots until it was outlawed in 2006.
"There used to be the option of voting against all. It guaranteed that your vote would not be given to anyone. But this option was taken away so that our votes are even easier to steal, so the authorities can remain in power for even longer," she said.
"I am 36 and like any other citizen of Russia, I now have the right to participate in the presidential election. I have decided to exercise that right," she said.
"I want to return the chance to vote against all. This is our peaceful, lawful way to say: 'Enough is enough, guys. We're fed up with you. Together we are very strong,'" she said. "Whatever they promise, for what they speak out, we are speaking out in opposition. Against them. Against all."
The decision by Sobchak, whose father was a political mentor to Putin in the 1990s, roils the nascent effort to come up with a viable rival to Putin, who has ruled the country more or less for 17 years and remains widely popular.
Before becoming a TV personality and fixture at opposition rallies, Sobchak was a reality TV star and had been dubbed Russia's equivalent to Paris Hilton.
Putin has given hints that he would run for a fourth term as president, but has not formally announced a decision.
If Putin does run, he is expected to win easily.
Some critics have voiced suspicion that Sobchak's candidacy may have been backed or even engineered by the Kremlin, which analysts say is eager to bolster turnout and strengthen Putin's mandate in what could be his last presidential term.
Crusading lawyer Aleksei Navalny has vowed to run in the race, and he has built a formidable base among Russians, particularly younger voters, who have taken to his message of fighting corruption among top government officials.
However, Russian courts have convicted him of criminal charges that he and his supporters have lambasted as politically motivated. Election officials have said his conviction makes him ineligible to run under Russian law.
There was no immediate response from Navalny or his Anticorruption Foundation. He is currently serving a 20-day sentence imposed earlier this month by a Moscow court that found him guilty of repeatedly violating laws regulating protests and demonstrations.
Last month, however, Navalny publicly mocked the idea of Sobchak running for office, saying she would be endorsed by the Kremlin as the liberal rival to Putin.
"They need a caricature liberal candidate, especially if they don't want to register me. They'll say: 'We won't allow Navalny [to run] because he's a criminal extremist, but look, here is Ksenia Sobchak. She says everything the opposition wants,'" Navalny told his followers on YouTube on September 21.
Russian news agency TASS reported that the leader of Russia's Solidarity opposition movement, Ilya Yashin, will not support Sobchak's candidacy.
"I don't know what has changed," Yashin told TASS. "Solidarity supported Aleksei Navalny in the election and we haven't revoked support for him."
The decision is a reversal for Sobchak, who earlier derided leaked reports that said the Kremlin was looking for female candidates as a way to give the March election more legitimacy.
In an interview broadcast later on October 18 on Dozhd TV, Sobchak expanded on her motivations for running, and also said that she had recently met Putin for an interview for a television show about her father, Anatoly.
She said when she informed Putin she would be running for president, he “did not look happy.”
Anatoly Sobchak was mayor of St. Petersburg between 1991 and 1996. He was a mentor to Putin when he worked in the mayor’s office. Sobchak died in 2000.
Just before her appearance on Dozhd, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was asked about whether the Kremlin would consider her a legitimate candidate.
"Ksenia is a very talented person. She has experience in various spheres, and she is rather well educated," Peskov was quoted by TASS and Interfax as saying.
"But if she plans to become a politician, she should start with a clean slate and gain experience, because politics is very different from journalism and show business."