Ksenia Sobchak: Russian celebrity presidential candidate travels to Chechnya to confront Kadyrov on human rights – but finds nobody home

Shadowed by strongmen and attacked by seemingly planted critics, liberal candidate Ksenia Sobchak finds herself unwelcome in tightly controlled republic

Oliver Carroll
Grozny, Chechnya
Sunday 28 January 2018 18:11 GMT
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Russian celebrity presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak goes to Chechnya to confront Kadryov on anti-gay purge

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It was supposed to take everyone by surprise: a campaign trip to Chechnya and Ingushetia, volatile republics at Russia’s southern border that are considered political no-go areas to all but the invited.

Ahead of presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak’s trip, the few details of the journey were discussed in conspiratorial tones. Journalists were sworn to secrecy — after all, there was no guarantee a visit by the liberal, pro-gay celebrity candidate would be welcomed.

The reality on the ground, of course, was somewhat less undercover. Every step of the way, police were waiting, checking passports and filming the proceedings. Meetings were cancelled before they began. On one occasion, lights were even turned out in the middle of a discussion. By the time Ms Sobchak arrived in the Chechen capital, Grozny, midday on Sunday, it was already clear she would not be getting the scoop she had hoped for – a showdown with the most irascible leader in the region, Ramzan Kadyrov.

With her visit now looking decidedly chaotic, the celebrity presidential candidate spent barely an hour in the Chechen capital before leaving for the airport. In the absence of meetings, she settled on two media narratives. First, she presented herself as a one-woman picket in protest at the trial of local activist Oyub Titiev, 60, who was detained on dubious drugs charges two weeks ago. Second, she staged a walkabout of the Vladimir Putin Prospect, a showcase avenue in a zany city centre devoted to Putin and the Kadyrov family.

On Sunday, however, Vladimir Putin Prospect was deserted. Stores were shut, despite advertising to the contrary. It seemed no accident. One of the only signs of life was a man minding an espresso van, and Ms Sobchak duly made her way to speak to him. This was where the first call went out.

“Why are you drinking coffee,” a bearded man of angry, veined features and furry teeth shouted. “Coffee is bad for horses."

The coarse joke referred to an internet meme, now several years old, which unfavourably compared Ms Sobchak’s facial features to those of a horse. The candidate took the prepared slight in her stride: surely a self-respecting Chechen man would not dare to be so rude to women, she asked?

“Push off, leave,” said the man. “My home is no place for you.”

The man was one of a group of a dozen broad-set individuals, aged 25 to 30, all of whom appeared to be communicating their actions via mobile or walkie talkie tucked inside coats. They behaved aggressively and shouted “go home”, “horsey”, and “Dom-2”, in reference to the trashy Big Brother reality show she once fronted.

Once it transpired the chants were getting nowhere, the apparent leader of the group, who had been hiding under a hood, made the final confrontation.

“Why have you come now? You’re a failed journalist!”

“I came here to talk about Titiev.”

“Titiev is a nobody.”

“He was investigating missing people.”

“No one goes missing here in Chechnya.”

“You think it’s normal that people come here to be attacked like this?”

“You have a reputation here.”

By the end of the day, Ms Sobchak had, in fact, “met” with the Chechen leader. He had not, it seems, been able to hold back from the offence of seeing an enemy in his kingdom. His notoriously short fuse had ensured Ms Sobchak’s visit made the headlines across Russia — and saved it from being a totally limp failure.

Ms Sobchak’s decision to come to the region was controversial not only with local strongmen. Coinciding as it did with a nationwide day of protests called by Alexei Navalny, some suggested that she was looking to undermine her opposition rival. Mr Navalny, a presidential hopeful who has been barred from running, has been increasingly critical of Ms Sobchak’s campaign. He described her candidature as “unserious” and compromised, and called for a boycott of the elections to scupper the government’s hopes of a strong turnout.

Mr Navalny was one of the 240 estimated arrested nationwide in protests as of 5pm Moscow time today. The numbers attending the unsanctioned rallies were significantly less than demonstrations last year. Part of the reason for that, no doubt, was an active police operation. In the run-up to the event, they targetted Navalny’s regional headquarters with searches and arrests, and they closed down the charitable foundation that funds them. On the day of the protests, one of his YouTube channel presenters was arrested live on air. His alleged crime? Making a hoax bomb threat to Navalny’s office... where he was broadcasting.

Ms Sobchak told The Independent that she had not planned her dates to coincide with the protests. “It was prepared a long time ago – perhaps four weeks ago,” she said in frustrated tones. Granted, this was about the same time that Mr Navalny declared his boycott, but that was a detail: “I’m not here to talk about other opposition candidates. My competitor is not Navalny, but Putin!”

Eventually, she relents somewhat: “You know, Alexei and I just believe in different things. I respect his work – I just don’t believe that it will lead to positive changes. I’ve always been against unsanctioned protest. I think you should only attend demonstrations that have been agreed in advance. Like Bolotnaya.” (The Bolotnaya protests of 2011-12 were the last major opposition protests to have been given a green light from above. Since then, authorities have rarely granted permission to rallies in major city centres.)

Ms Sobchak said the aim of her trip was to highlight human rights issues in a region that is usually ignored by the media. Certainly, her visit was well-received by some locals, who expressed hope her arrival might signal change to their often hopeless lives. During meetings she held with activists in Ingushetia on Saturday, raw emotion often pierced through. Many complained of pressure from the local authorities, who, they said, were unaccountable to anyone but Moscow. They were the one who were brave enough to meet her. Others, they said, had decided it was not worth the risk.

As the evening drew to a close, a man rose to address the audience. “I have three sons. One of them was killed. No one said anything about it – no information about the investigation,” he said. “Then my second son disappeared two years ago… It’s the truth – Vakha, who is my relative, will back me up.”

“Vakha,” who turned out to be one of Ms Sobchak’s local organisers, confirmed the tale and before too long he was in tears and asked for water. “When I said I wanted to help Sobchak, they started to threaten me and my family. I hope that this publicity will protect us.”

“I will be your microphone,” Ms Sobchak offered in return.

It was, of course, hardly a security guarantee.

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