'Russia's Paris Hilton' announces run for president amid criticism

Alec Luhn
Ksenia Sobchak gives a radio interview in 2012. - AP

A liberal television host once described as “Russia's Paris Hilton” has announced her candidacy for president amid reports that the Kremlin want her to serve as a harmless foil for Vladimir Putin.

In an article and video on Wednesday night, Ms Sobchak said declared she would run in the March 2018 vote as the “against all” candidate, a move that drew criticism from some liberals.

“All of us can and should talk about our position, about our opposition to this regime that wants to remain for a quarter of a century, to deteriorating education and healthcare, to enormous corruption and propaganda … to war and international isolation,” she wrote. 

Once mainly known as a socialite who appeared on the cover of Russian Playboy, Ms Sobchak burnished her opposition credentials during massive anti-Kremlin street protests in 2012 and her work for the independent media outlet TV Rain. 

Although she's the daughter of former St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, who gave Mr Putin his first job in politics, she has denied rumours that the president is her godfather.

Vladimir Putin speaks with Ms Sobchak and her mother in 2003 at the grave of her father, former St Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak. Credit: Government Pool Photo via AP

Nonetheless, there was immediate scepticism over the sincerity of her candidacy.

Presidential candidates in Russia have traditionally played the role of “sparring partners,” lending the race an air of legitimacy without threatening the final result, and Ms Sobchak's announcement immediately brought to mind oligarch and Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who offered token opposition to Mr Putin in the 2012 election and took only 8 per cent of the vote. 

For weeks, Russian media has been reporting that the Kremlin is expected to pick a female candidate to increase interest in the election. 

In September, Vedomosti, the respected newspaper in which Ms Sobchak made her announcement, quoted sources close to the presidential administration as saying that she was an “ideal option”. 

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny greets supporters at a rally in Orenburg last month. Credit: Evgeny Feldman/Navalny Campaign via AP

Russian Twitter users quickly noted that the URL of her announcement article was dated to 30 September, suggesting it had been prepared well in advance.

Mr Putin, whose approval rating remains above 80 per cent according to pollsters, has not yet officially announced his candidacy, but is widely expected to run.

Legitimate or not, Ms Sobchak's campaign will likely split the Russian opposition. 

Alexei Navalny, the anti-corruption campaigner who is barred from running because of a controversial embezzlement conviction, previously said Ms Sobchak would only serve as a “caricature of a liberal candidate”.

Mr Navalny has been holding rallies around Russia demanding he be allowed into the race, and a 30-day jail sentence he was given this month sparked protests in dozens of cities.

The opposition has long debated whether to boycott or participate in elections in which they are typically denied state television coverage.

During her show on TV Rain on Wednesday, Ms Sobchak noted that opposition candidates had won seats on Moscow district councils last month and said the race would gave her the chance to reach a bigger audience.

But many still criticised Ms Sobchak's run as a Kremlin ploy. “There is a need for a higher voter turnout especially in cities and among the younger population … this is the scenario they have managed to come up with,” said analyst Yekaterina Schulmann.

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