Socialite says she is standing as a protest candidate but analysts suspect it is a Kremlin-backed move to split opposition.
Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Vladimir Putin’s political mentor, has said she will stand in Russia’s presidential election next March, which Putin is expected to win.
Sobchak, a socialite and liberal journalist who has taken part in opposition protests, said she was standing as an “against all” protest candidate.
“Over the past 17 years a whole new generation has grown up that wants to see a different Russia that is civilised and European,” she said in an interview on Russia’s TV Rain in which she announced her candidacy.
Analysts said her candidacy looked like a Kremlin-backed “spoiler” campaign to boost the legitimacy of the elections and split the liberal opposition. Alexei Navalny, the country’s most prominent opposition figure, is unlikely to be allowed on to the ballot.
Sobchak refrained from direct criticism of Putin, making her candidacy look a lot like that of the oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov in 2012, who stood on a vague change platform without ever seriously criticising the Kremlin. He received 8% of the vote.
Sobchak acknowledged on Wednesday that she had met Putin recently to interview him for a television programme she was working on about her father, Anatoly Sobchak. She said by this point she had decided to run for president and informed Putin, who “did not look happy”.
Many Russians will find implausible the idea that she chose independently to fight for the presidency. In September the newspaper Vedomosti said the presidential administration was considering asking Sobchak to run.
“This is a lie,” Sobchak wrote in a blog. “I have not had any direct or indirect contact with the presidential administration about this. I don’t need their blessings, I can decide what to do for myself.”
Anatoly Sobchak was mayor of St Petersburg in the 1990s, and Putin was his deputy. The Russian president has spoken on many occasions about his political debt to Sobchak, who died in 2000.
Ksenia Sobchak’s candidacy is likely to be seen in the Kremlin as a way of conferring legitimacy on an otherwise tedious electoral race in which Putin’s only challengers will be the elderly men of the “managed opposition” parties – such as the Communist Gennady Zyuganov and the nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky – both of whom have long ceased to offer any real opposition and are broadly supportive of Putin’s policies.
Putin has yet to declare his candidacy officially but is widely expected to stand and win another six-year term. He has high ratings and genuine support among Russians, though state television covers the president uncritically and opposition voices are not given a platform.
Navalny has spent the past months travelling around Russia holding campaign rallies and setting up volunteer headquarters in various cities, in an attempt to bypass the media and get through to ordinary Russians. He has drawn large crowds in a number of cities but has been jailed for short periods on a number of occasions for organising unsanctioned protests. He is currently in jail serving his latest 20-day sentence.
This year a source close to the presidential administration told the Guardian that there had been serious discussions about allowing Navalny to stand. In the end, however, it was decided that the “negative noise” he would create would make him an intolerable candidate, even if Putin would eventually win.
Sobchak said she saw Navalny as a “friend and ally” and hoped he would support her. She said she hoped to meet Navalny when he leaves jail, and said if he managed to get on to the ballot then she was ready to withdraw her candidacy.
In order for Sobchak to get on to the ballot, she will need to collect 300,000 signatures from Russian citizens. Shortly before she announced her candidacy, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said she “fulfilled all criteria” to stand, in what appeared to be Kremlin blessing for the move.
Sobchak said she would hold a press conference next week in which she would elaborate on her programme and name her campaign team.