In this election, in March 2018, Putin is standing as an independent candidate allied to the so-called All-Russia People’s Front (ONF), a coalition between the ruling party and numerous nongovernmental organizations. He will win this election: in Russia all the bargaining and power plays take place before the elections.
But what is ex-talk show host Ksenia Sobchak doing in the race? She is standing in her capacity as leader of the Civic Initiative party, and will not win in this election. However, the real purpose behind her participation is to give her the exposure to do better next time. She is also in the process of trying to get better exposure in the US, airing views that are unpopular in Russia, on Crimea and gay rights, for instance, to build a reputation as a liberal. Her views on these matters have cost her dearly, as polls show that with a bit more than 1% ready to vote for her, 80% of the electorate say they would never vote for her, making her the most unpopular of all the candidates in the race. But clearly Sobchak and her advisers hold the view that it is better to be hated than to be unknown, and to alter her policies as she gains prominence.
In the presidential debates (in the video above), she added drama to the usually prosaic debating process by standing up to the heckling of the nationalist party candidate Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who for decades has monopolised the dramatic limelight, storming off in tears at the end when the TV mediator wouldn’t give her extra time.
So it is quite probable that she will do well in the Duma elections in 2021, and in the presidential elections in 2024. In view of the close relationship between her family and Putin, changes in her policies over time may mean that she eventually stands as an independent candidate allied to the groups in the ONF, to become Putin’s successor. She will be 43 and Putin at 72 will become kingmaker in the establishment background. It is significant that Putin admitted in his state of the nation speech that he was now mainly concerned about reform and the future succession. The video display of new weaponry at the end of the speech was a statement, really, of what he has been doing up to now.
No candidate other than Sobchak – with her obvious standing in the Russian élite – can be the right “compromise candidate” for the warring factions in the next pre-election standoffs in Russia. The Western media’s focus on Alexei Navalny and his inability to stand in the elections, on the other hand, fails to address the main point that he is simply not trusted not to give the keys of the kingdom to foreign powers in the vein of Yeltsin and to some extent Medvedev. The reform problem in Russia is one of encouraging the development of a political class that serves Russia, hopefully the Russian people, without liquidating and absconding with the country’s resources abroad.
No new figure can emerge in such a relatively short space of time that the system will be able to digest. As for supporting the idea that Russia might give up Crimea and gay rights, this policy makes her noticed on the domestic scene and makes her look good in the West, giving her the international status her establishment backers will want. Many observers see these policies, especially Sobchak’s policy on Crimea, as perhaps helping to frame a “second referendum” on the independence of the peninsula. Anyway, eventually backtracking on policy proposals is what every politician ends up doing.
Update 19th March on 2018 elections: Sobchak is a credible (in the Russian system) fourth out of eight candidates with a tiny 1.67% of the national vote.