MOSCOW -- Kremlin foe Aleksei Navalny is trading barbs with Russian celebrity and TV host Ksenia Sobchak over speculation she will run for the Russian presidency in March -- a rumor widely discussed in media reports that she has yet to confirm or explicitly deny.
A bid for the Kremlin by the liberal-minded socialite-cum-journalist would set up a potential showdown with President Vladimir Putin, the KGB lieutenant colonel who cut his political teeth in the 1990s working for her father, then St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak.
The persistence of the unconfirmed media reports has already convinced some observers of their veracity -- and drawn fire from Navalny, the opposition leader who is currently on tour in the Far East trying to whip up support for his own presidential campaign.
Navalny claims that if Sobchak runs, she would serve as a Kremlin-backed liberal spoiler who would hurt his campaign while lending credibility to the election. Officials have said Navalny is barred from running due to an embezzlement conviction he calls politically motivated.
"The Kremlin's idea is very simple," Navalny told his followers on YouTube on September 21. "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.'"
He called Sobchak's economic and political views "fairly cannibalistic" and typical of the early 1990s liberals from whom Navalny has sought to distance himself in a bid to broaden his appeal to the Russian everyman with promises of higher wages, less corruption, and tighter restrictions on Central Asian migrants.
Sobchak responded on September 23, dismissing his comments as "populist" and accusing Navalny of grossly misrepresenting her views. She also questioned why -- given that they know one another -- he didn't just call her rather than denouncing her on YouTube.
"Why are you feeding off these leaks made specially (and you cannot, as a politician, not understand this) to discredit and doom such thoughts, if I were having them, at the start," she wrote on Instagram.
She accused Navalny of seeking a "monopoly" on opposition activity and accused him of not actively supporting the campaign led by opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov to win seats in municipal elections in Moscow on September 10.
Sobchack rose to prominence in the 2000s as a reality TV host and regular fixture in gossip columns but transformed into a prominent Kremlin critic during the opposition protests that erupted in late 2011 over election-rigging allegations. She now works as a journalist for the independent news outlet TV Rain.
The first public indication she might bid for the Kremlin came in the Vedomosti newspaper on September 1. Citing sources in the Kremlin, the paper reported that officials believe a female candidate in the March 2018 election would inject interest into an otherwise staid race expected to hand Putin another six-year term.
The Kremlin is reviewing various possible female candidates, with one source touting Sobchak as the "ideal" one, the Vedomosti report said.
The purported electoral stage-management was reminiscent of claims around liberal-minded tycoon Mikhail Prokhorov's candidacy in the 2012 presidential election. Prokhorov was seen as a Kremlin-approved straw man invited to create the illusion of a contest, a characterization the billionaire rejected.
Sobchak has denied any kind of partnership with the Kremlin, writing on Facebook that she is "an independent person" and "proud of that."
She has repeatedly panned media reports about her supposed bid for the presidency as attempts to "discredit" her.
On September 20, speaking to TV Rain, she said "the rumors of my bid are a provocation and the latest attempt to discredit," adding, without elaborating: "I am currently working on a big project, but it is journalistic, not political."
Nonetheless, the rumors and leaks have not abated. On September 22, journalist Ilya Varlamov's popular blog cited sources as saying that Sobchak would announce her campaign after a meeting with Putin.
Putin has not declared his intention to run in the election, though he is expected to do so and to win.
An electoral encounter between Sobchak and Putin might make an interesting spectacle because of the family connection.
Putin considers her late father, St. Petersburg's mayor from 1991-96, to be a mentor. Putin was one of two deputy mayors under Anatoly Sobchak, who lost reelection in 1996 and fled Russia the following year amid criminal investigations he was facing.
He returned after Putin was named prime minister in 1999 and died of a heart attack a month before Putin was elected to his first term in March 2000. His death triggered allegations that he was poisoned.
Putin himself commented on speculation about Ksenia Sobchak's possible presidential bid, calling her father a "remarkable figure in modern Russian history" and a "very honorable" man who "played a big role in my fate."
"But when we're talking about running for the presidency, things like personal character cannot play any significant role. It depends on the kind of program she proposes, if she really is going to run, and how she manages her presidential campaign," Putin said.