Socialite-turned-politician Ksenia Sobchak, 'Russia's Paris Hilton', is the unlikely presidential challenger to Vladimir Putin

Ksenia Sobchak is many things — socialite, journalist, Instagram star with 5.2 million followers, reality television presenter, covergirl on Glamour Russia, editor-in chief of L'Officiel Russia — but no one expected her to announce her decision to run for Russian president, most likely against incumbent Vladimir Putin. The move would likely boost public interest in the race, but could further fragment the nation's beleaguered Opposition.

"My name is Ksenia Sobchak. I am standing for president," she wrote in an open letter released in Vedomosti newspaper, to announce her campaign on Wednesday.

Socialite-turned-politician Ksenia Sobchak, Russias Paris Hilton, is the unlikely presidential challenger to Vladimir Putin

Russian socialite Ksenia Sobchak announced her candidacy for office of the president on Wednesday. AP

Ksenia — a frequent guest at international celebrity parties, who has modelled for Playboy, and has multiple projects to her name — is the daughter of the late St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak, widely known as Putin's mentor. On the other hand, Sobchak’s mother Lyudmila Narusova sits in the Upper House of Russian Parliament.

The 35-year-old studied at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, a training ground for diplomats that teems with children of the elite. She announced her intention to become a candidate in March's election in a YouTube video, arguing that Russia has grown tired of its current political elite and needs a change.

'Will fight for greater opportunities for women'

Sobchak said she wants to reform the education and judicial systems in Russia, and said she also wanted greater opportunities for women in the country. "Almost 500 strenuous professions in Russia are officially closed for women. But even among the rest of careers, women's salaries are almost 30 percent lower than men's. Only some 5 percent of the country's most important companies are headed by women," she had claimed, according to RT.

As per The Moscow Times, she projected herself as a "pro-business, pro-rights" candidate and spoke against gender and sexual discrimination. "I decided to exercise that right (to run for president) because I am against all of those (candidates) who usually exercise that right," she said. "When I was 18 and was studying in university, Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. Children who were born that year will go and vote themselves this year. Just think about that."

Foray into politics

Sharp-tongued and witty, Sobchak has often been critical of the Russian government. She joined anti-Kremlin protests in Bolotnaya Square, Moscow, in 2011-2012 but has largely avoided criticising President Vladimir Putin.

File image of Ksenia Sobchak. AP

File image of Ksenia Sobchak. AP

She said she risked a lot by joining anti-Kremlin rallies.  "My name is Ksenia Sobchak and I have something to lose," she said to boos from the crowd at the 2011 Moscow rally.

She was detained by the riot police along with Opposition leader Alexei Navalny at a Moscow rally in May 2012 but was released without charge. She also frequently dropped in on a protest camp in a Moscow park the same month, sometimes in full make-up en route to the television studio.

Her strong online presence — she now has 1.66 million followers on Twitter and 5.2 million on Instagram — gave the protests a social media megaphone.

In a recent interview to Glamour Russia, she called being president "a top level art project", adding that she feels her showbiz career will help with her political bid. Voting for her would be "a legal and peaceful opportunity to say enough," she wrote.

Russia's 'Paris Hilton'

Initially compared to Paris Hilton on account of being a tanned blonde socialite who dabbled in showbiz, the 35-year-old Sobchak has built a successful career as a television host. She started out as a presenter on Dom-2, the low brow Russian equivalent of Big Brother, where contestants have to form couples and discuss relationships around a campfire.

She also starred in her own reality show Blondinka v Shokolade which roughly translates to 'Blonde in Chocolate'. The show portrayed her as a glamourous yet accessible socialite who went shopping or spoke to friends over the phone, according to DWThe show drew flak for her frequent swearing. Sobchak later went on to host Russia's Next Top Model as well.

Capitalising on her image, she released books featuring style tips and launched a perfume called Married to a Millionaire.

In 2011, Forbes magazine estimated her earnings at $2.8 million, and this year it ranked her Russia's 10th best-paid celebrity, with $2.1 million. Like many Russian stars, she earns a large chunk of her income by hosting corporate events and weddings.

As an MC at lavish weddings and birthdays, Sobchak rubs shoulders with the often-secretive ultra rich in Russian society, including oil and communications tycoons. In 2013, she married the film and theatre actor Maxim Vitorgan.

Her friends reportedly include fashion designer Ulyana Sergeenko, model Natalia Vodianova, film director Renata Litvinova, and Elena Perminova, the model wife of Alexander Lebedev, whose family controls Britain's Evening Standard newspaper.

Vladimir Putin's reaction

Sobchak hasn't directly criticised Putin yet. Speaking to TV broadcaster Rain, she had said she informed Putin in advance about her intention to run, adding that it seemed to her that he hadn't liked her decision. The Kremlin said she is eligible to contest.

File image of Vladimir Putin with Ksenia Sobchak (centre) with her mother. AP

File image of Vladimir Putin with Ksenia Sobchak (centre) with her mother Lyudmila Narusova. AP

When rumours of Sobchak's possible run for presidency started spreading, Putin told Vedomosti newspaper in September, "I have always had respect for (Ksenia's) father and regard him as an outstanding figure in modern Russian history... He was an honorable man, and played a great role in my life."

However, Putin also said "personal matters can play no significant role when running for presidency" as is this case, adding that Sobchak's potential political career "depends on the political programme she offers". "Every citizen in accordance with the law has the right to run as a candidate. Sobchak is no exception," he had said.

Sobchak's family and Putin have shared a close relationship. Putin even stood beside Sobchak and her mother at the graveside after her father Anatoly died of a heart attack in 2000. Sobchak has made no secret of her close ties to Putin, though the family denies rumours that he is her godfather.

Some pundits, however, said Sobchak's candidacy should please the Kremlin, helping counter growing voter apathy without posing a threat to Putin. Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, warned that Sobchak's bid would further fragment and weaken Russia's Opposition.

Opinion polls show Putin, who has dominated Russian politics for nearly two decades, will comfortably win a re-election if, as most observers expect, he decides to seek a fourth term.

When rumours about Sobchak's intentions first appeared recently, Russia's most popular Opposition leader Alexei Navalny warned her on YouTube that she would play into the Kremlin's hands if she enters the race. Navalny is currently serving a 20-day jail term for organising an unsanctioned protest.

Navalny has also declared his intention to enter Russia's presidential race, even though a criminal conviction that he calls politically motivated bars him from running. The 41-year-old anti-corruption crusader has organised a grassroots campaign across Russia to support his nomination. It has organised waves of protests this year, piling pressure on the Kremlin. "They need a cartoonish liberal candidate at a time when they don't want to allow me to enter the race," Navalny said in a warning to Sobchak.

Sobchak has rejected Navalny's criticism, saying that if he is allowed to run, she would consider withdrawing her candidacy in his favour. She has cast herself as a "candidate against all", appealing to broad public dismay with Russia's tightly-controlled and corrupt political system.

Many Russians derided Sobchak's move, saying the poll — which is expected to see the participation of usual suspects like Gennady Zyuganov, the veteran leader of Russia's Communist Party — was becoming ever more farcical. "I don't want to vote 'against all', I want to vote for Navalny," said one tweet.

Others said it was hard to take the announcement seriously. "If this is Operation Successor, then it's a bold move," quipped Vadim Volkov, a 39-year-old manager. "It is hard to speak about this without a smile," he told AFP.

Like other self-nominated candidates, Sobchak needs to gather 300,000 signatures to get registered for the race. Those nominated by parties represented in Parliament don't need to do that.

The candidates haven't reached the formal registration stage, so there is no exact count of their number yet. Sobchak wouldn't discuss possible sources of funding for her campaign in a nation as vast as Russia, but her high-level connections in Russia's business world could help her bid, it is believed.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 20, 2017 14:56:26 IST

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