Ksenia Sobchak’s emergence at the forefront of Russian politics was unexpected. It began when a Kremlin source told Vedomosti newspaper that she was the “ideal” contender for a female presidential candidate in next year’s election.

A female candidate as sparring partner for President Putin is not new as a Kremlin political strategy. In the run-up to the 2012 campaign, Oksana Dmitrieva, a former Duma deputy for A Just Russia party, was named as a potential runner. In the end there was no female candidate in that election, and whether it will happen this time around is a big question: the domestic policy bloc in the presidential administration tends to be all talk. However, the indirect nomination of Sobchak for president has not only become the most sensational and controversial Russian political event of late, but could also serve as a functional and reliable model for domestic policy.

The Vedomosti source’s speculation promptly spawned articles, op-eds, and even comments from Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov. Sobchak herself, who rose to fame as a socialite and reality TV show presenter before joining the opposition-leaning TV channel Dozhd, appeared to express indignation, but she did so in a very strange manner: she claimed that Vedomosti had announced her nomination (which it hadn’t), and said that all the discussion had made her seriously consider running. 

Discussions around Sobchak’s nomination reflect the demand for any alternative to Putin. The former actress isn’t a politician. She doesn’t have an agenda or a team, which a serious candidate ought to have. But Sobchak’s participation in the election is being seriously discussed. She’s a striking liberal, well known among the public, and she criticizes the regime. If it’s anyone but Putin, why not Sobchak?

It seems that the politically active part of the public wanted a hurricane, and the source’s musings fell on fertile ground. Demand for Sobchak’s nomination grew, and even though it was yet to occur, it became a political event.

A few years ago, even during the massive anti-Putin protests that swept Moscow (in which Sobchak played an active role), the mere thought of Sobchak as a presidential candidate would have seemed preposterous. Now it appears quite natural. When Mikhail Prokhorov played the role of Putin’s sparring partner from the liberal side in 2012, a reason was thought up to justify supporting him: he’s a successful businessman, so he could be president. No justification is being required of Sobchak, which is why even though people are discussing her nomination, it probably won’t come to fruition.

The Sobchak story also reveals a lot about the political strategy of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who wants to be on the ballot and is holding rallies attended by many thousands in the provinces. Navalny is using the presidential administration’s indecision and love of speculation for his own gains. He immediately described the idea of Sobchak’s nomination as Kremlin interference in his own plans to run, and called on the TV anchor not to participate in the “sordid Kremlin game of ‘Let’s drag a liberal laughingstock into the election as a distraction.’”

These accusations highlight the narcissism of the opposition leader. He wants to be the sole candidate, even though a large number of nominees would play to his advantage. Russian presidential elections occur in two rounds. The more candidates in the first, the more votes they could win away from Putin, lowering his results. But it seems that, for Navalny, domination outweighs pragmatism.  

Expectations that Sobchak really would run have been partially bred by the presidential administration itself. Early in the year it announced that Putin’s opponents would be fresh faces, and that it was necessary to increase interest in the election and, accordingly, voter turnout: Putin was supposed to win the final campaign with grace. But talk of a high turnout and new faces was quickly replaced by reasoning that there was nothing wrong with low turnout and that it was unnecessary to artificially invite interesting newcomers.

Now a higher turnout is back in fashion. Sobchak’s nomination raises interest in the campaign: an election with her involvement becomes a show, and a show is interesting, so why not? “We’re looking for actions, not words. Do something!” That’s the message being sent to the Kremlin by loyal proponents of the state, opposition members, and analysts alike, discussing Sobchak’s candidacy. The public is ready to take the Kremlin’s place in assigning various advantages and disadvantages to different scenarios.

Under the model of the Kremlin’s new domestic policy bloc, something is planned publicly in the administration, the plans start being discussed, and the public takes up the conversation. By this time, the presidential administration is already moving on to new topics and new ideas.

Public discussions of plans and ideas by sources inside the Kremlin give rise to expectations and later disappointments because they aren’t followed by action. Imagine public planning in the context of a business: the value of a company is sure to fall if it publishes the management’s provisional brainstorm ideas. Investors are going to expect one thing, hear something else the next day, and a totally different thing the day after. Where’s the stability and reliability? Straighten out a plan before discussing it. That’s the law of business and politics, which it seems the Kremlin ignores. Any unrealized scenario turns into proof of indecision, which becomes an automatic loss: they didn’t do it, which means they couldn’t. The Sobchak story is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

But what if the presidential administration is running these experiments intentionally? Events are announced, and various scenarios are automatically played out in the consciousness of the public and experts. These public stories become experimental runs for different scenarios.

Sergei Kiriyenko is a methodologist, and one of the main tools of methodologists is activity-inciting games. During these games, actions are worked out and played out. It is thought that when a game is used as an example, the pros and cons of all the various paths become apparent.

You could say that one large activity-inciting game is being played out in Russian politics right now. Future scenarios are being developed in the consciousness of the public, and there are two possible resulting dangers. First, the presidential administration may think it’s running a game, but people see the situation very differently, and these experiments could be perceived as indecision.

Second, when methodologists set up their games, they don’t intend them for a wide audience, and running too many of these experiments past society could turn out to be a losing scenario for the Kremlin. Because when the time comes, the regime won’t be able to offer the public anything new.

  • Andrey Pertsev