A frisson of excitement touched the early skirmishing for next year’s Russian election with last week’s announcement by Ksenia Sobchak that she intended to run for the presidency. Not only was there the novelty of a woman, and a young woman at that — she turns 36 next month — throwing her hat in the ring, but there was the brazenness of anyone, at this early stage, or at all, mounting an electoral challenge to President Vladimir Putin.
Outside Russia many might ask “Ksenia who”? But not inside the country, where Sobchak’s name is recognised nationwide, thanks to an early career in reality television, which she used as a springboard for a more varied, and serious, media career. She joined the opposition protests of 2011-12, and there had been speculation for a while that she might consider a presidential bid in 2018.
But it is not just name-recognition that she enjoys. In an open letter to the Vedomosti newspaper, where she declared her candidacy, she made clear she would capitalise on her lineage. As the second daughter of the late Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of Saint Petersburg — in whose team Putin rose to prominence — she knows, and is prepared to question, pretty much anyone who is anyone in today’s Russia.
Not that her candidacy was greeted with universal enthusiasm, either among opposition figures or commentators, who — with a few honourable exceptions — took a distinctly condescending view of her ambitions. Along with heavy hints that she was not up to the job, critics voiced suspicions that, if she really did run, it would be as a Kremlin stooge — to divide and defang more serious opponents of Putin. The solid presumption — in Russia’s upper echelons, as across the rest of the world — is that Putin will not only run, but win another term and remain President until 2024.
Putin himself has not yet stated his intentions. He declined to do so again last Thursday, at his annual question-and-answer session with the Valdai group of international Russia experts in Sochi. But what if — let’s think the unthinkable for a moment — he were to decide not to run. What then?
It is probably fair to predict that such a decision would be met, at home and abroad, with consternation — which is another reason why it might be as well at least to countenance the possibility. Putin may not be popular, to put it mildly, in many parts of the western world, but he is for the most part a known quantity. The same people denouncing him as an autocrat, an aggressor and worse, might well feel suddenly that a Russia without Putin could be a lot less predictable and more dangerous than a Russia with Putin at the helm.
And what of Russia if next year’s presidential race were suddenly open — genuinely open? One of the depressing features of the Russian political scene is that the main challengers have changed so little over the past 25 years. The right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of liberal-ish Yabloko, Grigory Yavlinsky, and a successor to the long-time Russian Communist party leader, Gennady Zyuganov.
An obvious status quo candidate would be Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who kept the presidential seat warm for Putin between 2008 and 2012. Might Putin even designate him again his successor? Then again, could Medvedev — even with Putin’s backing — win an election, in today’s Russia, that was fully free and fair? The political mood is not the same as it was a decade ago and a new post-Soviet generation has come of voting age.
Next in line might be those who have fallen out with Putin and left, or been sacked, from his administration over the years. They could include one of the West’s favourites, the former finance minister Aleksei Kudrin, who has remained on the fringe of Putin’s circle, and a former prime minister, Mikhail Kasyanov, who has not, and now leads a minor political party, Parnas. The chances of former defence minister and chief-of-staff Sergei Ivanov should not be dismissed entirely.
Then there is the outright opposition, where Alexei Navalny — who has evolved from a single-issue campaigner against corruption into a broader political force — would be the leading contender. Whether he has the temperament or would attract broad enough support to be electable is one consideration. Another is whether he will be eligible, as a criminal conviction, widely believed to be politically motivated, could exclude him.
Which is where Ksenia Sobchak comes in. She said, after announcing her candidacy, that she might think again if Navalny did run, which would allow the opposition to focus on a single candidate. Without Putin, though, the whole electoral landscape would change. The opposition would have to define itself differently — opposition to what, to whom? It would have to take its place among other parties. There could be room for a Navalny party and for Sobchak — and a degree of political pluralism not seen in Russia since the ferment of the late 1980s.
The scenario is improbable, of course. The overwhelming consensus is that Putin will run, and win — not only, it is said, because he wants to remain in power, but because out of office he could risk prosecution. Then again, no one is immortal, and a time will come when Putin’s name will no longer be on the presidential ballot paper. It is an eventuality that not only Russians, but the rest of the world, should prepare for.
— Guardian News & Media Ltd
Mary Dejevsky is a writer and broadcaster. She is a former foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington.