By Eloise Goldsmith
The reality television star turned Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak was the choice of 1.6 percent of voters in Russia’s presidential election on March 18th. To no great surprise, Vladimir Putin swamped the opposition with 76.7 percent of the vote. Experts and opinion polls widely predicted this outcome — what, then, is the significance of Sobchak’s doomed presidential bid? During the campaign she was dismissed by critics as a spoiler candidate, allowed to run by the Kremlin in order to dull the more “legitimate” opposition mounted by anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. While this may be true from the perspective of electoral math, it understates Sobchak’s feminist and cultural significance. Her willingness to speak out about female equality, an issue that is still largely taboo in Russia, shows a commitment to shifting systemic opposition politics in years to come, even if it did not influence the election’s outcome.
While Navalny, who was barred from participating in the race, is considered the de facto leader of the “non-systemic opposition,” Sobchak’s participation in the election placed her among the “systemic opposition.” The systemic opposition refers to members of parties who have representation in government, but rarely oppose Putin or his party’s initiatives. Supporters of the non-systemic opposition view these candidates, such as Pavel Grudinin from the Communist Party and Vladimir Zhironovsky from the Liberal Democratic Party, as illegitimate because the election was organized to ensure Putin’s victory. Navalny reinforced this divide on election day when he appeared with Sobchak on YouTube TV broadcasted from his headquarterson election day, accusing her of legitimating Putin’s win by participating in the race.
It is true that the Kremlin used Sobchak to create the impression of liberal democracy during the race without fear she would mount a real electoral threat. The regime counted on her participation in the 2011-2012 protests and her involvement with Navalny and the anti-corruption movement to increase turnout of the non-systemic opposition. This is supported by a poll done by the Levada Center in October which found that less than one percent of respondents planned to vote for Sobchak, but those who did not plan to vote were the most likely group to have heard about Sobchak’s campaign and consider voting for her. Exit polls also support that she helped boost turnout without threatening Putin’s numbers. Sobchak earned above 2 percent of the vote in regions where Putin earned at least 71 percent, such as in Leningrad and Perm, and polled poorly in regions where Putin also performed relatively poorly.
In terms of building a political reputation, Sobchak benefitted from her status as a non-threat by avoiding the Kremlin’s retaliation to perceived electoral competition. For instance, in February the Kremlin reacted to Communist Party Candidate Grudinin’s greater-than-expected popularity in the polls by conducting a smear campaign against him. Authorities revealed undisclosed assets he had held abroad, successfully tarnishing his image and illustrating the regime’s ability to weaken high performing candidates. Safely at the bottom of the pack, Sobchak did not run this same risk of being targeted. She acknowledged that this dynamic worked in her favor, stating that “in a totalitarian regime, the only way to win is to be underestimated.” Sobchak has made it clear she is playing the long game. She has years before the next presidential election to reshape her public image, by which time she could emerge as a real competitor.
As noted by Aaron Schwartzbaum in an FPRI Bear Market Brief roundup before the election, the Kremlin used Sobchak to ensure a better election outcome for Putin, but she used the regime’s instrumentalization of her candidacy to accrue real political capital in the long run. Specifically, she was able to use public forums such as Russian state TV to reach a wider audience and address issues that are generally politically unpalatable for a systemic opposition candidate.
Sobchak’s campaign signifies that progressive gender politics in Russia are not completely dead, even at a moment when the country is experiencing a resurgence of traditionalism. This is made more significant given that public opinion is shifting away from greater acceptance of women in politics. A Levada poll conducted in early March found that 54 percent of respondents were not ready to see a woman become president in the next 10-15 years, up from 39 percent in 2013. Russian politics today is characterized by the “token woman” — a select few women within an overwhelmingly male political landscape, who serve more as a symbol of gender parity than a promoter of women’s rights. Conservative stateswomen such as Irina Yarovaya and Tatyana Moskalkova have been instrumental to Putin’s traditionalist brand of authoritarianism. The ultra-conservative female MP Yelena Mizulina was in charge of drafting recent legislation that decriminalized domestic abuse, making it an administrative rather than criminal offense.
By contrast, Sobchak has made women’s rights a part of her platform. As the sole female candidate in the election she is also a token, but by focusing on women’s issues she demonstrates that she intends to be more than just a gesture towards gender inclusion. She has spoken out about the gender pay gap, highlighting enduring structural barriers to women’s participation in the economy. She has also called for a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual assault against the chairman of the State Duma’s International Relations Committee, Leonid Slutsky. After the State Duma’s ethics committee failed to condemn or take action against Slutsky’s behaviour, independent Russian media outlets have boycotted covering the Duma. This is an unprecedented level of organized action against sexual harassment, which is not criminalized in Russia. The episode demonstrates that Sobchak is not just parotting a pro-woman platform to an unreceptive audience. Her message does reflect some public sentiment.
While speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies she emphasized the need for a collective shift in both men and women’s attitudes towards equality in Russia. She highlighted the problematic way men are able to voice opposition to basic female equality without repercussions. She also argued that “women do not think of themselves as always equal to men, and this is a big problem,” even though many women do want equality.
Sobchak’s determination to be heard and taken seriously also speaks to her commitment to amplifying women’s voices. She demonstrated this resolve during a televised debate on March 14th, when moderator Vladimir Solovyov cut her off before her allotted time was up. Sobchak demanded she be given the same amount of time as the other candidates to make her case, all the while fending off disparaging comments related to her gender. This TV appearance and others have underscored the hostile reaction of the male candidates to her participation in the race, but it has not deterred her from using these platforms to address the politically taboo. Sobchak emphasizes that many of the millions of people who hear her on Russian state TV do not have access independent sources of news and these ideas “are real new information that can change their way of thinking.”
The heart of the issue is whether Sobchak’s participation in a fake election de-legitimizes her. Navalny and his supporters say that her legitimacy is fatally undermined by participating in Putin’s rigged election, but this views Sobchak only through the outcome of the 2018 race. There may be a wave of retrenchment among Russians when it comes to gender equality, but Sobchak sees the value of being the only person un-ironically advocating for women’s rights on Russian state television. With this in mind there are compelling reasons to take her at her word when she says that her main goal is to provide the opposition with a voice through institutionalized politics and shape Russian politics in the years to come.