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Daughter Of Putin's Former Mentor Announces Presidential Run


Russia's president, Vladimir Putin, had a dilemma. If he let his same old sparring partners run against him in the March presidential election, there was a risk it would be so boring, few people would actually come out to vote. And opposition leader Alexei Navalny would never play along in a tightly scripted presidential campaign. So Putin found his answer in a new challenger - a former reality TV star with millions of followers on social media. NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Moscow.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Ksenia Sobchak may be the second-most famous person in Russia after Vladimir Putin thanks to her popularity as a TV personality. But since the end of Russia's oil boom, she's also proven to be a talented journalist and an outspoken supporter of Russia's Democratic opposition. What makes her safe for the Kremlin is that Putin once worked for her father, the first post-communist mayor of St. Petersburg.

ALEXANDER BAUNOV: So the political really see her as somebody belonging to the elite of the country. So she has different views, but she's one of us. And we can trust her and allow her to criticize us, to run against us because she's one of us.

KIM: That's Alexander Baunov with the Carnegie Moscow Center. Baunov says it's clear Sobchak is meant to be a foil to Putin. At her first press conference last week, Sobchak said she doesn't see herself as a politician and that people shouldn't vote for her but rather against everyone else.


KSENIA SOBCHAK: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: In fact, she said she'd withdraw from the race if opposition leader Alexei Navalny is registered as a candidate. The Kremlin has indicated that Navalny doesn't stand a chance of running. In that sense, Sobchak does look like a straw man to appease Russian liberals. She bristles at the suggestion she's a Kremlin tool. But Sobchak has pledged not to make any personal attacks against Putin because she says he saved her late father from a trumped-up criminal case in the 1990s. If her campaign was meant to elbow Navalny in the ribs, it's working.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: Just one day after her press conference, Sobchak appeared on a talk show on state television where she was met by a studio audience holding up campaign signs. She didn't hesitate to break two taboos of state TV by mentioning Navalny's name and saying Russia broke international law by annexing Crimea. Sobchak and Navalny do call each other friends. But when Navalny found out about Sobchak's plans to run, he lashed out at her.


ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: "The Kremlin wants to present a caricature of a liberal who has cannibalistic views," he said, "creating even more popular anger toward the opposition." Since Sobchak's declaration to run, Navalny has avoided talking about her, but his position is that if his candidacy is denied, the opposition should boycott the elections. As for Putin, he hasn't even announced his candidacy, although everybody expects him to run. When he was asked recently if a woman could become president, he was typically cryptic.



KIM: "In Russia, everything is possible," Putin said. Then he smiled. Lucian Kim, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "RENASCENT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.