- - Thursday, November 9, 2017

MOSCOW — Presidential election campaigns here are normally dry, dull and entirely predictable affairs that end with another resounding victory for Vladimir Putin over a handful of hapless, Kremlin-approved “opponents.”

Ksenia Sobchak, a onetime Playboy pinup and reality TV star turned government critic, is out to change all that.

Ms. Sobchak, 36, dubbed the “Russian Paris Hilton,” has shaken up Russia’s staid political scene with an unexpected bid for next year’s presidential elections, when Mr. Putin is widely expected to seek another term in office that would keep him in power until 2024.

“I’m not a professional politician,” Ms. Sobchak, dressed in a sober, Ivanka Trump-ish gray business suit, told journalists in Moscow at a recent press conference. “But I’m not indifferent to what’s going on in my country.”

Her campaign launch video, shot in her designer kitchen, slammed what she called Russia’s “collapsing education and health care systems” and “monstrous corruption and propaganda.”

She said she hoped to become the candidate of everyone fed up with the political system created by Mr. Putin, who has rarely been challenged during his nearly two decades dominating the Russian political scene.

It was a remarkable turnaround for Ms. Sobchak, an actress, journalist and socialite who, in another remarkable twist of fate, happens to be the daughter of Mr. Putin’s first political mentor. It was reformist St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak who gave Mr. Putin, a former KGB officer, his first political job in the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union, setting him on the path to the Kremlim.

One of Russia’s best-known celebrities, Ms. Sobchak achieved nationwide fame in the 2000s when she hosted “Dom 2,” a brash, frequently vulgar reality television show. She also marketed a perfume called “Married to a Millionaire” (she isn’t, although she has dated several), and published a book with the same title, whose back cover promised: “There are enough oligarchs to go around.” Her fondness for nightclubs, designer clothes and high-profile boyfriends made her a favorite of the Russian paparazzi and a tabloid staple.

In 2011, however, Ms. Sobchak shocked Russians when she appeared on stage at a massive anti-Putin protest in central Moscow.

“I am Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose, but all the same I’m here,” she told a 100,000-strong crowd.

Her speech was drowned out by jeers, but Ms. Sobchak was undeterred. Since 2012, she has hosted a popular political talk show on the opposition-friendly TV Dozhd online channel, giving a platform to some of Mr. Putin’s biggest critics.

That same year, armed police raided her luxury apartment in central Moscow. “You should have got married to a dependable KGB guy rather than hanging out with this bad company,” one of the officers told her. Police confiscated almost $2 million in cash from Ms. Sobchak’s apartment, although the money was later returned.

Ms. Sobchak’s decision to side with Russia’s opposition movement was particularly noteworthy because of her family background and her ties to Russia’s political elite. Ms. Sobchak said it was Mr. Putin who arranged for her father to be flown out of the country in 1997 when the critically ill Mr. Sobchak was under threat of imminent arrest on corruption charges. The charges were dropped when Mr. Putin was named head of the FSB security service.

Putin practically saved my father’s life,” she said.

Ms. Sobchak’s mother is Lyudmila Narusova, a senator with the Kremlin-loyal A Fair Russia party.

“My family had a close working relationship with Putin,” Ms. Sobchak said. “But I was just a child, and I didn’t pay any special attention to him. He was just one of the men around my father.”

She has consistently denied rumors that she is Mr. Putin’s goddaughter.

Sham campaign?

Because of such connections, some opposition figures say Ms. Sobchak’s candidacy is a sham, part of a Kremlin plot to legitimize the elections by creating the illusion of a genuine alternative to Mr. Putin.

Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, accuses Ms. Sobchak of being part of a “loathsome Kremlin game that goes by the title of, ‘Let’s put a liberal laughingstock up for the elections in order to distract attention.’”

Mr. Navalny is barred from running against Mr. Putin next year because of a past fraud conviction. He said the charge was trumped up to stifle his political ambitions and has continued to hold anti-government rallies.

Despite his unquestioned hold on power, there are signs Mr. Putin isn’t happy with his image or the Russian brand abroad.

In September, Russian media reported that the Kremlin was concerned that the lack of suspense over the outcome of the elections would result in a low turnout and that it was actively seeking a female presidential candidate to “liven up” the campaign. The well-respected Vedomosti newspaper said the Kremlin considered Ms. Sobchak an ideal “sparring partner” for Russia’s strongman.

The day Ms. Sobchak announced her presidential bid, Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said she was a talented person. A senior official with Mr. Putin’s ruling United Russia party said the presidential campaign of the former “it girl” would give Russians a richer choice of candidates.

Ms. Sobchak dismisses the rumors as a cunning ploy by Mr. Putin’s advisers to undercut her presidential bid.

“The Kremlin is trying to suffocate me with its embrace by making out we are in this together,” said Ms. Sobchak. “Do you seriously think that if I didn’t take part in the elections they would immediately become illegitimate?”

She said she would consider withdrawing from the campaign in the unlikely event that Mr. Navalny is allowed on the ballot for the election, set for March 18 with a runoff, if necessary, three weeks later.

“If her audience finds out that Putin is a thief, then so much the better,” said Dmitry Gudkov, a well-known Kremlin critic. “The question is, will she want to say this?”

Ms. Sobchak, whose Instagram account has over 5 million followers, has said she will not insult Mr. Putin personally during her campaign.

Although Mr. Putin has yet to announce officially that he will stand for re-election, few analysts doubt that he will seek a fourth presidential term. Kremlin sources say the presidential administration has been tasked with ensuring a record percentage of the vote for Mr. Putin.

To date, only Vladimir Zhirinovsky, an ultranationalist who normally sides with the Kremlin, and Grigory Yavlinsky, a veteran liberal politician, have confirmed that they will challenge Mr. Putin, whose approval ratings are about 80 percent.

Ms. Sobchak’s presidential bid is expected to cost up to $15 million. She said the money is being donated by wealthy businessmen who want to see genuine political change in Russia. “We will not take money from criminals or from the Kremlin,” she said. She refuses to name her financial backers, however.

Surveys by state-run and independent pollsters indicate that up to 10 percent of Russians are considering casting their votes for Ms. Sobchak. But the former model said she has few illusions about her chances or the likelihood that the Kremlin would let her triumph.

“These are dishonest elections. In this casino, Putin always wins, whatever way the roulette wheel turns,” she said.

“But it’s worth running in such elections just to show the authorities that there are a large number of people who do not like what they are doing,” she said. “If we are a peaceful opposition, then taking part in elections is one of the only real ways we have to register our discontent. What else can we do?”

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