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Seven Takeaways from CSIS Conversation with Russian Presidential Candidate Ksenia Sobchak

The Russian elections are to take place in less than six weeks on March 18 this year. As of this writing, the Russian Central Election Commission had registered eight candidates for the presidential bid, including President Putin, who will be running for a fourth and likely final term. Arguably, the most controversial and non-traditional challenger in this group is Ksenia Sobchak, a candidate of Civil Initiative. She decided to run for the presidency once it became clear that the most prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, will not to be allowed on to the ballot.

Ms. Sobchak gave a talk at the Center of Strategic and International Studies on February 6, which provided the audience with the chance to get a better understanding of her personality, motivation for running against Putin, and policy positions. Here are seven takeaways from her public appearance in Washington DC.

1. Why Ksenia Sobchak is running against President Putin

From the start, Ms. Sobchak stated that she believed that Putin would win the upcoming presidential elections in Russia on March 18 and that it was impossible to challenge him. Such a statement, of course, begs the question why a candidate who deems her campaign doomed would actually pursue election. In fact, many in Russia see Sobchak’s campaign as a Kremlin-designed tactic and her as a “spoiler” candidate, useful for splitting the opposition vote and bringing some legitimacy to the elections.

In her address Mr. Sobchak defended her legitimacy as a candidate, but she also readily admitted that she was not as much running against President Putin as she was using the campaign publicity to prepare for subsequent run for the Russian Duma. Her second reason was not as self-centered and was focused on using the presidential campign to create awareness about the political situation and initiate a gradual transitional process.

2. How Sobchaks defended her family history

Most of those who follow Russian politics are familiar with the rather privileged and untraditional family and personal history of the candidate. Anatoly Sobchak, Ms. Sochbak’s father, was the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg and a mentor to Vladimir Putin. Lyudmila Narusova, Ms. Sochbak’s mother is a politician, a former member of the Federation Council of Russia, and an ardent supporter of Putin and his policies. Ksenia Sobchak herself has a very ‘untraditional’ past. In her youth she was a reality-TV celebrity and the so-called ‘Russia’s Paris Hilton,’ while in recent years she has taken more serious roles as a Russian TV anchor and journalist.

It was interesting to see how the candidate addressed questions about her family connections and past reputation. She did this smartly and was obviously well prepared. Preempting a question about her past appearances in some raunchy roles, Ms. Sobchak joked that the Russian media liked to show pictures of her from 20 years ago, especially of her as a blond girl in a corset, and thus thankfully kept her image eternally young. Addressing a question of whether she approved of her mother’s position on the Magnitsky Act, Ms. Sobchak a bit theatrically referred to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and suggested a parallel between the book and her relationship with her mother. She forcefully distanced herself from her mother’s political views, suggesting that their relationship may be similar to the one of US families divided by President Trump. While obviously rehearsed, Sobchak’s response to her past and her family pedigree was smart and well placed and seemed to generate understanding from the audience.

3. What is wrong with Russia, according to Sobchak

In her speech and during the Q&A session, Sorchak frequently referred to the Russian authorities as autocratic and flawed and the situation in the county as absurd. She seemed to put blame on the institutional arrangements of the country as much as on President Putin himself. Notably, she expressed support for replacing the easily abused Russian presidential system of government with a parliamentary one and also called for reviving Russian federalism, making the local executives dependent on people’s support rather than on Putin’s personal approval.

Her critique extended to the deep conservatism of Russian society, its lack of liberal values (including those of gender equality), a lack of understanding about what is going on, and how the political system and authoritarianism work. Ms. Sobchak acknowledged decreasing freedoms, increased power abuse, and the presence of propaganda, while also carefully and reverentially referring to “Mr. Putin” in a somewhat soft and non-confrontational manner.

4. What Sobchak said about Western sanctions

Discussing the effect of western sanctions on Russia, Sobchak stated that those sanctions produced relative stagnation, but not an economic collapse. The state of the economy in Russia is relatively much better than what people experienced in the 1990s, so they still consider life under Putin a better deal than the one they got under the “Democrats” of the transition period.

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been barred from running. (Alexei Navalny/Facebook)

In addition, Sobchak argued that the increased Western –Russian confrontation has elevated Putin to the stature of a “Leader of the Anti-American [Global] Movement,” providing him with support and sympathy from authoritarian regimes around the world.

5. What to do with Putin and his regime

Ultimately, the key question with which the candidate started and completed her talk was how to change things in Russia. From the get-go Sobchak claimed that change in Russia today can and should come only in an evolutionary, and not a revolutionary, way. She called for a new ‘Perestroika,’ or transformation, which would not come immediately, but for which the country can start to prepare and then bring it to the fore once Putin’s final presidential mandate ends in 2024. A person from the audience correctly noted that what Sobchak is advocating is for the opposition to simply stay put and wait for six years, a period during which all vestiges of independent political institutions and civil society can completely disappear.

Ms. Sobchak defended her position somewhat reasonably by looking at the state of Russian opposition and the prevalent political attitude in the country. She argued the majority of the Russian population, outside of the big cities, is not ready to oppose the regime, and it would take time for them to get informed, prepared, and open to change. She further noted that while the opposition protests reached a peak in 2011, they have been much smaller since and have failed to reach a critical mass (she assumed that this would be around 200,000 participants). Instead of growing, the number of protesters on the streets has shrunk, largely because of the intimidation campaign unleashed by the authorities. The regime has then used footage from these small crowds to claim that there is no broad opposition against it and thus further to delegitimize and marginalize the opposition.

Another element of Sobchak’s evolutionary approach (mentioned in the beginning of the talk) was accepting as a given the Russian kleptocracy and the current distribution of resources and not advocating for property confiscation, redistribution, or any other punitive action. Her idea of transition seemed to focus squarely on politics and not on economics. The key reason for advocating for an evolutionary approach did, however, come out to be an immediate consideration about Putin’s fate. She sounded refreshingly honest and politically perceptive in expressing a belief that President Putin may in fact be tired and ready to retire but cannot afford to do so.

The reason for this is that he knows how his control of the judiciary gives him a way of deciding the fate of others, and is afraid that his own fate may be decided in a similar way. The ‘evolutionary’ approach advocated by Sobchak implied that it would make it possible for Putin to have a negotiated exit, a political deal that would allow him to “withdraw” peacefully. As Sobchak herself repeated a number of times, if such a process does not occur, “Putin will stay [in power] forever.”

When asked why she is not joining the opposition in boycotting the elections if the result is almost certain, the candidate somewhat unconvincing responded that people cannot change things “by staying at home” and that only electoral participation can bring down the level of Putin’s victory. The fact that a few percentage point decrease in Putin’s electoral score would not change anything was not something Sobchak was ready to address.

6. What about Russia’s foreign policy

The questions posed by the audience regarding Russian foreign policy were some of the most intriguing moments of the forum. The answers given by Sobchak were both surprising and at times quite unexpected. When asked about Russia’s intervention in Donbas, the candidate said that this was against international law, was not the right policy, and if President she would withdraw all Russian presence from the region. Her answer regarding Crimea seemed, on the other hand, rather wacky and was openly mocked by some in the audience. She acknowledged that taking Crimea may not have been a correct policy, but asserted that given the historic roots of the region, and the fact that more than 2 million Russians live in the peninsula now, a compromise is necessary. The suggested ‘compromise’ constituted of having all the population of Russia and Ukraine vote on the status of Crimea. Not surprisingly, many in the audience found the ‘solution’ preposterous.

To her credit, when asked about Ukraine or about the Russian minority in Latvia, Sobchak did not jump on the nationalist bandwagon and in the latter case spoke generally about establishing more intense cultural and education links with the former Soviet republics. Also, when asked about closer political ties with China, she stated that she considers Russia part of the European civilization, by which she seemed to mean its political liberalism and of being different from China “in that way.” In essence, the candidate suggested a Russia return to the Euro Atlantic family, eschewed nationalism, and showed no interest in sustaining Russian imperial ambitions. Her position seemed to be in direct opposition of the current Russian foreign policy.

7. Should we take Sobchak seriously

Politically, Sobchak is not a serious candidate, and it is not likely that she will even be an effective “spoiler.” She is, however, a curious representative of the new Russian generation, bringing communication skills and a TV past that may be useful in the future. I have to admit that her ‘performance’ at CSIs surpassed my expectations. Sure, many of her positions were somewhat conflicted, and at points during the conversation her lack of political maturity was clear, and yet the way she took on the toughest questions and answered them calmly, inviting alternative solutions, was impressive. She did not lose her cool or smile during the one-and-a-half period, and this was something.

She seems to be a candidate who is evolving and has the capacity to grow in maturity. Sure, she has a serious dose of political naiveté, but she also, just by being a candidate, demonstrates courage, confidence, and capacity to engage (even in Washington DC), and that is not a trivial matter. Watching her, I was reminded of the cases where a young protégé challenged the regime of his patron, such as in the case of Michael Saakashvili during the Rose Revolution in Georgia.

I have to admit that listening to Sobchak left me somewhat encouraged and intrigued. She seemed to know Russian society well, understand how to operate in it and to be holding mostly liberal, even progressive and feminist, values. In her speech, she referred to the problems of Russian conservatism, the state of women, and the need to educate and create new values. She seemed generally impressed by the Women’s March and openly wished a similar one to take place in Russia, and while she refused to give an opinion of the Russian intervention in the US elections, her indirect remarks on a number of occasions showed that she is not in any way a President Trump fan.

Ms. Sobchak is not likely to be the opposition candidate to end the Putin’s regime, but she seems to be a person who can grow into a passionate, liberal politician, someone who down the road may do a good job in affecting change slowly and on the margins.