MOSCOW -- Socialite and opposition-minded journalist Ksenia Sobchak has called on the authorities to release all political prisoners as she gave her first press conference since announcing she will run in the presidential election set for March.
In front of a theater hall packed with journalists, Sobchak said on October 24 that the presidential campaign she announced last week under the slogan "I am against all" would give a voice to an eclectic mix of Russians unhappy with the country's direction under President Vladimir Putin's 18-year rule.
"I am not making a claim to the role of professional politician," she said. "I believe that it is important that the voice of my generation is heard at these elections."
If registered for the election, Sobchak, 35, is likely to compete against Putin who is yet to announce his candidacy, but who is widely expected to do so -- and to win handily.
Elections in Russia are tightly controlled, and the most prominent opposition leader, Aleksei Navalny, is barred from running.
Fielding questions on a range of issues, Sobchak set herself apart from the mainstream Kremlin narrative by calling Ukraine "Russia’s most important partner" and saying that restoring relations with Kyiv is "the most important task that lies before Russia."
Russia in March 2014 annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea, and has been backing separatists in eastern Ukraine who are fighting Ukrainian security forces in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people since its start in April 2014.
The annexation of Crimea prompted a surge in popularity for Putin in Russia, and the date of the presidential election was moved to March 18, the official anniversary of the annexation.
Sobchak told journalists that "from the point of view of international law, Crimea is Ukrainian -- full stop," adding that Russia had "broken its word" by violating the 1994 Budapest Memorandum guaranteeing Ukraine's territorial integrity.
Sobchak stridently rejected allegations she is a "spoiler" candidate backed by the Kremlin to fracture the opposition and give legitimacy to an election without Navalny on the ballot.
She promised to withdraw her candidacy if Navalny is allowed to compete. She said while campaigning that she would "do everything for [Navalny] to be registered" and would even consider joining his team if he is allowed to run.
Revelations that Sobchak met with Putin and personally informed him about her decision to run for president days before she made the announcement publicly have given grist to allegations that she is a "spoiler" candidate.
She insisted, however, that she met with Putin to interview him for a documentary about her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the late St. Petersburg mayor who was political mentor to Putin in the 1990s.
"I didn't ask permission for anything," she said. "I don't need it. I am an independent person. I simply think that, before making resonant statements, if you know a person, then you should tell them. It so happened that I was filming that day."
Nonetheless, Sobchak was pressed further on her relationship with Putin by poet Dmitry Bykov, who asked: "Are you against Putin and if yes, what, specifically, don't you like?"
She replied by drawing a distinction between "Putin the politician" and "Putin the man," to whom she said she remains grateful for helping her father. The latter appeared to be a reference to the corruption charges made against Anatoly Sobchak in the mid-1990s, which were dropped when Putin was rapidly rising to power at the end of that decade.
"He saved my father during tough times," Sobchak said. "I remember this and I am therefore not going to insult Putin the person. But that doesn't mean I like everything Putin the politician does. I will argue from this position. I am going to strive so that my generation lives under a new president. So that my generation runs the country -- young people with new views."
"I am against any person, including Vladimir Putin, being in power for 18 years," she added.
Sobchak appeared in a crowded hall of a central Moscow theater named after renowned theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky.
She called for Russian "political prisoners" to be released and for "an end to the illegal persecution of those people who are innocent and who are persecuted for their views."
On a large screen behind her, Sobchak aired a video clip of several people considered political prisoners in opposition and human rights circles. They included: Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov; Oleg Navalny, brother of opposition leader Aleksei; the former security chief of the now-defunct Yukos oil company, Aleksei Pichugin; opposition activist Dmitry Buchenkov; and theater director Kirill Serebrennikov.
Sentsov is serving a 20-year prison term on terrorism charges and Pichugin is serving a life term on murder charges. Buchenkov is currently on trial on charges of assaulting police during the 2012 Bolotnaya protest against election fraud, while Serebrennikov is under house arrest as embezzlement investigations against him are under way. Oleg Navalny is serving a 3 1/2-year term in connection with the same embezzlement conviction for which Aleksei received a suspended sentence.
Sobchak introduced her campaign team, which she said would be run by Igor Malashenko, a founder of the NTV television station who also ran the late President Boris Yeltsin's reelection campaign in 1996.
Vitaly Shklyarov will run Sobchak's Internet operations. He was an adviser to opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov's municipal-election campaign last month and previously worked within the U.S. presidential campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders.
Before becoming a television personality and a fixture at opposition rallies, Sobchak was a reality-television star and had been dubbed Russia’s equivalent of Paris Hilton.
Her decision to run in next year's election roils the nascent effort to come up with a viable alternative to Putin, who has ruled the country either as president or prime minister for 18 years and remains popular in the country's tightly controlled political environment.
Opposition leader Navalny has vowed to run in the race, and he has built a 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 on embezzlement charges that he and his supporters have lambasted as politically motivated. Election officials have said his conviction makes him ineligible to run for president under Russian law.
Having originally slammed Sobchak's bid and derided her economic and political views as "cannibalistic," Navalny has softened his public stance on her campaign.
On October 22, he said that "everybody has the right to participate in elections" and "to run for office." He added that he likes some candidates "more and some less" than others.
The press conference was so packed that some journalists were not allowed into the main theater hall. Sobchak therefore fielded further questions from excluded journalists in the theater's foyer. The entrance hall there was decorated with stylishly lit portraits of a few dozen people considered political prisoners. Each portrait carried a short biography, and Sobchak's campaign slogan "I'm against."
As Sobchak answered questions in the foyer, a commotion broke out at a nearby entrance. According to eyewitnesses, a man wearing a unicorn mask burst in through a side door, but was swiftly ejected by security as Sobchak called it a "provocation."
The man, tall and clad in black apart from his mask, spoke to journalists outside the theater, declining to identify himself and appearing unable to construct an intelligible sentence. He spoke, shivering visibly in the cold, for a few minutes, holding his long black coat together with his fingers, before wandering off up the central Tverskaya Street, still sporting the mask.