Depending on who you ask, it was either out of left field or entirely predictable. Earlier this month, Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian journalist and socialite, announced her candidacy for Russian president.
Sobchak has long been a member of Russia’s liberal opposition. Many also recognize her as a talented journalist for her work on the online independent television channel TV Dozhd.
But Sobchak is far from Russia’s most prominent opposition leader — a role that anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny has clearly claimed after organizing several large-scale rallies across the country this year. And she is also unusually close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Her father, Anatoly Sobchak, served as the city of St. Petersburg’s first democratically elected mayor and was a key mentor to Putin. Many feel that Ksenia Sobchak’s candidacy has been granted Kremlin approval to make the March 18, 2018 election appear more democratic and interesting.
Sobchak has announced she will not insult the Russian president, a man who she says saved her father's life when he was in poor health and facing corruption charges. But she has also made other surprising statements. Most noteworthily, she stated that, under international law, Crimea is part of Ukraine.
To find out more, Hromadske spoke over Skype with Oliver Carroll, the Moscow correspondent for The Independent and the London Evening Herald. He is covering the Sobchak campaign from the central Russian city of Ekaterinburg.
So let’s start with a question that is on many people’s minds: Is this for real? Or is it a Kremlin ploy to to make the elections appear more democratic and more interesting?
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Well I think the answer to that is that it depends what point of view you are looking from. For Ksenia Sobchak, I think these elections are very real. And I had the opportunity of speaking to both Ksenia and Alexei Navalny over the last couple of days and they have two very different points of view. My gut feeling is that this is something that actually did come from Ksenia, and I have no doubt that it was, at the very least, approved by the Presidential Administration and the Kremlin. There are reasons for the Kremlin’s support ??. But I think that Ksenia, knowing her character and the way she looks at life, I have a feeling that this is something that she believes in. the campaign itself is a fairly strange one by western standards. Ksenia herself has said that she’s not trying to get the presidency, she doesn’t she that as a possibility for at least the next six years. But she says that this is an opportunity for her to put her foot in the door and present an opportunity for Putin - and the emphasis here is on Putin - to change the system. So hers is very much an up-down election campaign, rather than Navalny’s, which is concentrated on the masses. But she thinks that this is the only thing that she can do, the best opportunity for democratic politics in Russia. Now, of course Navalny has a completely different view. He did his very best not to talk about Sobchak, saying that’s exactly what the Kremlin wants him to do. And, of course, the difference in the way Kremlin has approached both campaigns couldn’t be starker. Look at Navalny, he spent every fifth day in prison since declaring his presidential ambitions, rather ambitiously last December. Whereas Ksenia Sobchak has this last week appeared on federal TV and your regular listeners will know just how regulated that sector is. You don’t appear on federal TV without the say so of ??, who will have got the go ahead from the presidential administration. So that this campaign has been approved from the powers that be is, without question, the issue, I suppose, for the opposition to understand who it was - whether this was something that came from Ksenia Sobchak - I’m minded to believe that, knowing the way she views life, and she obviously sees this as the ultimate challenge for her. She’s someone who is a very proud woman. In many ways, she is a very impressive woman. But I think what the opposition is saying is that, she might be an excellent journalist, she might be a role model for women, but is she really our best presidential hopeful? Many of them will say no. So it is, in many ways, a present for the Kremlin, but I don’t think we have enough evidence to say that this is 100% a Kremlin project.
How would describe Ksenia Sobchak’s political platform?
It’s a very liberal – one may even say – out-of-touch with the popular mood in Moscow, in Russia. I mean, her campaign manager said it all when he was unveiled only thirty minutes into the press-conference, and he said that Ksenia has this idea of going for the individualistic vote, as opposed to Navalny, who is for the mass vote, which is why he says that Ksenia shouldn’t give up her candidacy if Navalny is elected. And he basically said that it is an interesting idea, it’s been tried before and it’s failed but we’re going to try again. In that, she has, what Navalny calls a “cannibalistic” approach to economics. She told me about her hero, which I’m not going to go into, I’ll leave it for my reportage, which will be coming out next week, but, for her, she’s a free-marketeer, she’s definitely for triple down theory, and again, I think that also comes into the Kremlin’s thinking – if you have somebody in a country where a lot of people are dependent on social government, or the so-called “byudzhetniki,” who rely on state subsidy in one way or another, whether it’s an army sector on one-industry town heavily reliant on a subsidized industry. She doesn’t have much for them, and that’s the real danger of Navalny, he was actually getting some traction in those areas. I think the idea of Sobchak – the typical Russian man in the provinces I don’t think is going to think that Sobchak is their champion. Though they are on the protest wing of the spectrum, the two are very in terms of their outlook to very basic social issue.
Sobchak also surprised many by saying that, according to international law, Crimea is still part of Ukraine? What was the response to that? And is she afraid of facing criminal charges for that statement?
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My understanding from a few sources is that this is Ksenia’s only personal decision. She went against the advice of her advisors. And I think she knew about the possibilities and I think that it was a deliberate decision to make news, to make some distinction from her position from Navalny’s position. But what is interesting is that, in actual fact, since then, her position is becoming quite similar to Navalny’s. Navalny originally refused to commit to the idea of returning Crimea to Ukraine, and then embraced an idea of a policy of basically making the Crimea question Crimean - so redoing the referendum in neutral circumstances with free media and letting the Crimeans decide for themselves. Now, Ksenia at her first press-conference said: “From the point of view of international law, Crimea is Ukrainian. Full stop. And then, let’s have a conversation.” Now that changed in Yekaterinburg yesterday. Again, she embraced the idea of a referendum, she embraced the idea of Crimea being Crimean, and it was making the position clearer and more exact, but there was a slightly walking back on that position. She has certainly out herself at a certain risk here because, although it’s unlikely that the Kremlin will move now, and Peskov – Putin’s spokesman – has already said, and these were sort of silly remarks, but hasn’t criticized them, hasn’t condoned them, hasn’t talked about them or case coming afterwards, but she still has that hanging over her, and there’s no time limit as to when a case might be brought against her for separatism. So, in many ways, she has exposed herself to a certain risk there, but it looks as if it was Ksenia’s decision.
Which, in russian reality at the moment, certainly is a very unusual position.
Ksenia Sobchak has also said that she won’t insult Putin because of his close ties to her father, Anatoliy Sobchak, the first post-independence mayor of St. Petersburg. What do you make of that?
Again, it sets her apart from Navalny. She presented herself as the peaceful transition candidate, rather than Navalny being the candidate. Again, just to emphasise, she believes the best hope for liberal Russia will come from Putin himself, not from Navalny, not from the pressure being put on him because, in her opinion, that would be counterproductive.
Now, in her opinion, nothing could be gained by insulting Putin. Navalny says: That’s absurd, I’m not going to stop criticizing Putin and I’m certainly not making a distinction between Putin the person and Putin the political animal - Putin is the guy that put my brother in prison. So, for Navalny, hearing that from Sobchak made him more sure in his belief that there’s more to Sobchak’s campaign that meets the eye. But he wouldn’t say that, of course, he was very, very, very careful not to enter into any polemics with Sobchak because, as I say, he thinks that’s exactly the way the Kremlin wants him to behave.
/By Matthew Kupfer