Date first published: 24/10/2017

Key sectors: none

Key risks: none

Ksenia Sobchak is a distraction. Her presidential candidacy poses no risks to the Russian elite, of which she is a member as the daughter of President Vladimir Putin’s mentor, Anatoly Sobchak. She has no policies regarding Russia’s energy industry, the dominant sector of the economy. Sobchak has no known views on military spending or pension reform. She has been a reality TV star, ‘opposition activist,’ talk show host and suspect in tax evasion schemes, although the US$2m in cash seized from her in the latter was summarily returned. It has long been alleged that her most lucrative role is that of gala host. Effectively, she now plays that role for the Russian presidential elections scheduled for 18 March 2018.

Sobchak is not a member of the opposition, despite flirting with the 2011 and 2012 protests. She has access to Putin, including for personal projects such as a documentary on her late father, and is even allowed to ask him sensitive questions in public, although this too is managed by the Kremlin. After all, she is rumoured to be Putin’s goddaughter. Yet she announced her candidacy in the tone of an opposition activist, claiming she was the candidate to vote for to replace the ‘against all’ option expunged from Russian ballots in 2006.

Yet Sobchak’s role is much the same that oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov played in the 2012 Russian presidential election, a spoiler aimed at legitimising the vote in the eyes of liberal urbanites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, the only groups that voted for Prokhorov in numbers. Prokhorov subsequently fell out with the Kremlin over coverage of Putin’s family in the RBC media outlets he controlled. He quietly accepted being forced to sell RBC and other key investments such as his stake in potash giant Uralkali and is reported to be effectively living in exile. A legitimate opposition candidate would certainly have made more noise regarding such a turn of events.

That is precisely what the Kremlin fears, and sees, in activist Alexei Navalny. Often fetishised in Western media coverage, which ignores his flirtations with Russian nationalism, Navalny is campaigning nationwide despite regularly being thrown in jail for his efforts. He is formally banned from registering for the election due to earlier politically-motivated prosecutions. Yet he has managed to attract thousands of supporters in some of Russia’s most isolated cities, far from his support base in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

Sobchak’s candidacy was therefore invented, likely by the Kremlin’s own stage-director Vladislav Surkov, to sustain the legitimacy of the election. Her assertion that she would withdraw if Navalny is allowed to formally run only highlights this. Navalny has no plans to stop campaigning. Even if imprisoned, his supporters plan ‘election rallies’ up to the upcoming 18 March vote in an effort to cast it as illegitimate. Sobchak is the opposite: the government’s attempt to make the election seem legitimate to those who may be sympathetic to Navalny. She is the gala host presenting the presidential elections to make them more appealing. If one wants to understand what is really going on at the party, however, she is best avoided.