Socialite Ksenia Sobchak may be one step closer to the St. Petersburg governorship

What happened

The Kremlin’s election problems might provide Russians with a new electoral show. After the disappointing results of the Kremlin’s candidates in regional elections, Putin has fired 8 governors in the last week. The most serious victim was Georgy Poltavchenko, the head of Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg. The city is due to have governor elections in 2019 and TV star Ksenia Sobchak, the daughter of Putin’s former boss, could run for office. Sobchak played the role of Kremlin-approved liberal candidate in the last presidential election.

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  • A former KGB officer famous for his devotion, Poltavchenko has governed St. Petersburg for seven years and would have been up for re-election in 2019. But he was fired on Thursday. As an honorable pension, Putin offered Poltavchenko the position of head of United Shipbuilding Corporation, the largest shipbuilding holding in Russia. This isn’t a bad sinecure: last year the state-owned company had revenues of $90 million.
  • Poltavchenko’s replacement as governor is Alexander Beglov, a long-time member of the Presidential Administration. This neatly demonstrates how the Kremlin doesn’t really want to change anything when it comes to regional politics: Poltavchenko and Beglov have almost identical biographies. They both know Putin from early 1990s St. Petersburg and they both worked for many years in the Presidential Administration, are non-public figures and considered to be personally loyal to the president.
  • The mystery around the elections, scheduled for September 2019, will unravel in less than a year. Ksenia Sobchak, founder of the Party of Change, has said she “doesn’t exclude” the possibility of running for governor. When the rumors of Poltavchenko’s firing were just beginning, Sobchak wrote: “You could said that I am the reason why Poltavchenko resigned!” The question is about Sobchak’s actual intentions. “It is a serious announcement. No one talks about intending to run if he or she hasn’t really considered the possibility. Sobchak is really concerned about the future of St. Petersburg,” Sobchak advisor Timur Valeev told The Bell. “We gently hinted to Sobchak that running would be not a bad idea from the point of view of promoting the party,” said Andrey Nechaev, another Sobchak advisor. In conversations with The Bell, both men talked about the nomination as if it was already a done deal.
  • Outside Russia, Ksenia Sobchak is most famous for her participation in the last presidential election (The Bell wrote about this in detail). Inside Russia, Sobchak was the star of a popular reality TV show in the early 2000s, but is also known for her 5 million Instagram followers and as the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the first mayor of St. Petersburg. It was under Anatoly Sobchak’s wing that Putin quickly rose from obscure KGB colonel to deputy mayor. Years later, when Putin was head of the FSB, he saved Sobchak from corruption charges by spiriting him abroad. This almost familial connection with Putin is the reason why many liberal Russians refused to vote for Sobchak in the 2018 presidential election. They saw her as a Kremlin spoiler candidate. Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who wasn’t allowed to stand, criticized Sobchak as a stalking horse. In the end, Sobchak only got under 2% of the vote, but her obvious political ambitions surprised many.
  • After recent election scandals, it is likely the Kremlin will be keen for Sobchak to run in St. Petersburg. “Everyone with whom I spoke on the other side of the Kremlin wall is pleased with how she performed in the presidential elections,” said political expert Konstantin Gaaze, adding that Sobchak could win 20% of the vote in St. Petersburg if she can do a deal with other opposition candidates. For the Kremlin, this would be a win-win situation. It will be possible to say “we let candidates run who were a serious threat to those in power,” Gaaze explained.

Why the world should care

The 2013 Moscow mayoral election in which Aleksei Navalny was a candidate was the last major competitive election in Russia. If Ksenia Sobchak runs for governor of St. Petersburg, this wouldn’t imply a truly competitive election, but for the Kremlin, such an election line-up would be a good indicator of the liberal, pro-Western mood in major Russian cities.

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Peter Mironenko

This newsletter is supported by the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley.