Russian TV star challenging Putin for presidency says 'there will be lots of blood' if country changes too fast

Exclusive: Questions surround Ksenia Sobchak's ability to raise funds for a serious challenge, and in an interview with The Independent on the campaign trail, the candidate herself admits Putin may be Russia's 'best hope of liberalisation'

Oliver Carroll
Yekaterinburg, Russia
Tuesday 31 October 2017 20:00 GMT
Ksenia Sobchak meets with Yekaterinburg residents
Ksenia Sobchak meets with Yekaterinburg residents (Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


In a flash, Ksenia Sobchak is out of the hall, past the balloons, the rows of champagne, and into a Mercedes headed for the airport. Clipboarded young aides, bodyguards and latex-clad camerawomen sprint to keep up.

Moments earlier, Russia’s newest presidential candidate had finished a “masterclass in working motherhood” for a group of young women – the final fixture of an adrenaline-fuelled campaign visit to Russia’s third city, Yekaterinburg.

And it was here that the celebrity journalist was at her most fluent, dishing out advice about men, the British education system, geopolitics, nannies, literature, blockchain and BitCoin, kung fu, psychology, fitness, NLP, compression tights, and contrasting hot-cold showers – “Ladies, it keeps your skin in shape.”

Ms Sobchak might have been paid handsomely for the gig – tens of thousands of euros was the rumour – but she was really only there to support the women in the hall. “Can I just say how gorgeous you look?”

From hard-working mum to presidential candidate, her extraordinary life story was open to them too.

“Work hard and go your own path,” she said. “You’ll make enemies, lose friends, but you’ll make even better ones on the way.”

As throughout the day, Ms Sobchak had skipped the details of her early biography. Daughter to Anatoly Sobchak, St Petersburg’s first mayor and mentor to Vladimir Putin, the privileged Ms Sobchak has rarely strayed away from Russia’s highest society.

Her family ties to the President are, at the very least, providing protection for her political ambitions. Others saw presidential bids met with jail terms, Ms Sobchak was allowed on state TV. Some suggest the relationship with the Kremlin goes much deeper; that Ms Sobchak had agreed to become a deliberate spoiler for the more dangerous opposition candidate, Alexei Navalny. Ms Sobchak vehemently denies this.

When we talk in the VIP terminal of Yekaterinburg’s Koltsovo airport, the candidate plays down the role of Mr Putin in her life. Even as a kid, he was no more than a grey blur, she says; a modest, quiet person that nobody, least of all she, paid attention to. “He was with my father all the time, but I didn’t find him interesting,” she says. “I had my life, my school, my boyfriends, my Nintendo, Super Mario.”

However much her father “sincerely loved” Mr Putin, the former KGB agent was never in his closest circle of friends. When Mr Putin visited, it was business only. “He could come with some papers, and then would go into Dad’s office to work.” There were a couple of times when the whole family went on holiday with the Putins – one trip to Finland, and another to Turkey. But there was no sitting on the president-to-be’s knee. No bedtime stories. No memorable presents.

Mr Putin wasn’t a touchy-feely guy, you understand; not the kind of man to show emotion.

Ms Sobchak says this distance has led many to paint a caricature of the President. The Putin she knows is no petty embezzler, and he is no Stalin either. He makes a clear distinction between enemy and traitor – “This is why he couldn’t have killed [opposition politician Boris] Nemtsov,” she says.

Her Putin sees himself as “a missionary”, who believes his historical task is to preserve Russia. Yes, he is a man who is capable of extreme measures to get what he wants. But he also tries to avoid them if he possibly can.

Ms Sobchak experienced some of those extreme methods for herself five years ago.

In the months before, the TV star had undergone a most remarkable transformation. Throughout the 2000s, Ms Sobchak was known across the land as the brash host of Dom-2, a trashier, dirty version of Big Brother. But over 2011-2012, she switched to become a political journalist and symbol of the nascent protest movement.

She says she grew up. Others suggested that she saw Russia changing, and wanted to be on the right side of history. Either way, Mr Putin didn’t like it. In June 2012, armed officers came to her home in a demonstrative dawn raid, seizing €2m in cash. The money was later returned.

Ms Sobchak does not doubt the President was behind the raid, but for some reason doesn’t believe the same scenario will repeat itself this time round.

“I believe that they will underestimate me,” she says. “I think I have a chance to pass between Scylla and Charybdis.” A third option in a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Several hours earlier, Ms Sobchak arrived at “Salt,” a fluffy white, mirrored koverking (co-working) centre for the day’s main political event. The cosy venue was an obvious contrast to the mass street protests organised by her rival, Alexei Navalny. But Ms Sobchak was not a street politician, she said; she’d do things her way, in comfort, and she doesn’t care if you don’t like it.

With intelligence and humour, Ms Sobchak introduced the audience – mostly journalists – to her free-market, liberal programme. There was little doubting her authenticity here, if only because there is no obvious electorate for such elite politics in Russia.

In summary, Ms Sobchak is pro-market, pro-trickle down, pro-equal pay, pro-feminism – though Aeroflot does have the right to dismiss ugly stewardesses, pro-LGBT – “guys, normal countries put this issue to bed 50 years ago”, and she is critical of the President’s military intervention in Ukraine and Syria. She says the only reason why Russia is getting itself tangled up in an unpopular Middle Eastern war is as a bargaining chip for Crimea.

Her political hero is Margaret Thatcher. She admires Ms Thatcher’s ability to ignore her opponents, make unpopular decisions and stand up for the hard-working, she says. Like Mr Putin, the Iron Lady hung on to power too long; “many mistakes” were made in her final years. And the Falkland Islands too – that wasn’t nice; they were Britain’s own Crimea.

One wonders what the grocer’s daughter would have made of the salacious side of a woman once known as the Russian Paris Hilton. For Ms Sobchak, however, that label is by now an anachronism, a cliche used by unprofessional journalists in the West. It’s like referring to Reagan as an actor, she argues. She isn’t ashamed of her past and has, like anyone, the right to evolve.

“It was my path and I’m not going to repent of it,” she says.

Ms Sobchak says she intends to use her celebrity to secure financing for the campaign. She’ll have to move quickly here. According to Gleb Pavlovsky, director of the Foundation for Effective Politics, a national campaign of any significance will require approximately $10-15m. Ms Sobchak is rich, but she doesn’t have those kind of resources.

Mr Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor, told The Independent Ms Sobchak has two obvious routes to get the cash: either use money from shadow government budgets or get oligarchs to cough up, presumably with a nod from the Kremlin.

On Monday evening, the lack of success in finding finance was highlighted with a dramatic walkout by the campaign’s elections manager, Alexei Sitnikov. Mr Sitnikov, the man who introduced the “power braid” brand to former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, had been talked up as a great hope for Ms Sobchak’s campaign. But by Monday, just two weeks in, he and his 30-strong team had had enough. The venture had been undermined by “too many bosses” and “chaotic planning”, he said. “It was as if the whole thing had been designed on the back of a cigarette packet.”

Mr Sitnikov has not been the only one to express doubt over Ms Sobchak’s ability to organise. In an interview with The Independent a few days earlier, Ms Sobchak’s protest rival Alexei Navalny had dismissed her candidacy as “unserious.” Mr Navalny also confirmed his organisation would not help Ms Sobchak get the required number of signatures to run if, as is widely expected, he is barred from running himself in December.

Mr Navalny’s position produces a defensive reaction from Ms Sobchak. Yes, of course, it won’t be easy to get the signatures, she says, but in weakness, the campaign will find strength. She will use the latest “virtual technology” to reduce the number of regional election headquarters she needs to open. Perhaps she’ll agree to run on a party ticket.

So far, voters are decidedly unimpressed by the Sobchak offer. According to a poll released by the neutral Levada Centre on Friday, only 1 per cent of Russians are sure to vote for her. Another 9 per cent suggest they might. This falls far short of the estimated 15 – 20 per cent of Russians seen as the protest electorate, who are apparently largely suspicious of her intentions.

Ms Sobchak calls for a reality check. Yes, she agrees, her’s was a project that could only happen if the President allowed it to happen. Her job was not to iron a suit ready for inauguration, but to search for peaceful ways to unify the liberal voice.

“Putin has all the power under his control, all the security forces, all the billions of dollars he needs,” she says. “It’s mad to pretend otherwise.”

Russia’s best hope of liberalisation is Mr Putin himself, she adds. A hard transfer of power the likes of which Mr Navalny is advocating is a dead end. Her ideal transformation would be led by democratic politicians that Mr Putin can trust, moderate politicians like the former deputy prime minister, Alexei Kudrin. “If you ask me would I prefer Navalny or Kudrin, of course it’s Kudrin,” she says.

This is the time for cool heads and high-level negotiation with the Kremlin, says Ms Sobchak. The alternative – pressure from the streets for change – will lead to “civil war within six years”.

“Mr Putin will not hand over power in such a scenario, but will fight to the end,” she says. “There will be lots of blood.”

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