The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Get ready for the smoke and mirrors of Putin 2018

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Next March, Russians will go to the polls to elect their next president. Almost two dozen people have put their names forward as candidates so far. The latest, according to The Washington Post's Andrew Roth, is Ksenia Sobchak. She isn't your standard politician: a 35-year-old socialite with 5.2 million Instagram followers, she was once infamously dubbed “Russia's Paris Hilton.”

Sobchak is also the daughter of Anatoly Sobchak, the late mayor of St. Petersburg. She is part of a Kremlin-linked elite by birth, though she has aligned herself with Russia's embattled opposition since the disputed 2011 elections for the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. In a slick promotional video announcing her candidacy, Sobchak said she is running as the “against all” candidate for disaffected Russian voters.

While Sobchak has plenty of name recognition, she stands little chance of winning. And many cynics in fact argue that the presence of a young, well-known liberal candidate like Sobchak in the end only demonstrates why Vladimir Putin is all but certain to win again.

In one way or another, Putin has run Russia since Aug. 16, 1999, when he became prime minister of Russia. He stepped up to become president the next year and held on to that position until 2008 when his ally Dmitry Medvedev took over, a move intended to circumvent a constitutional provision that says presidents cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. While Medvedev served as president, according to most analysts, Putin returned to the prime minister's office and wielded real power from that position, then returned to the presidency in 2012.

Putin is now the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union for almost three decades between 1924 and 1953. He is allowed to run again in 2018 under the constitution, and polls consistently show Putin holding the kind of approval ratings that President Trump or French President Emmanuel Macron would dream of. Yet he still has not committed to seeking another term. “I have not decided whether I will run at all,” Putin said at the beginning of October.

So why, with less than six months to go until election day, has he not done so? Earlier this year, Mark Galeotti, a Russia expert currently with the Institute of International Relations Prague, suggested to Newsweek that there was a lack of enthusiasm for the election. Putin and his allies, Galeotti guessed, “now just want to get through the tedious necessity of an election with the least fuss and embarrassment as possible.”

Some rumors suggest that Putin may finally announce his candidacy on Thursday. Even if he does, however, don't expect the ambiguity to stop. In fact, the smoke and mirrors may just be getting started.

Sobchak's entry into opposition politics has long been the subject of scrutiny. The socialite has numerous links to the current Russian president: Her father was one of the most important men in Putin's life, hiring him as his deputy mayor in St. Petersburg back in the chaotic 1990s. The Russian publication New Times, who broke the story of her candidacy, reported that Sobchak is only running in a bid to get jobs on Russia's federally run television channels.

So when Sobchak's candidacy was first reported, there were groans from many Russia-watchers, many of whom suggested she was an obvious Kremlin spoiler. To many, Sobchak's candidacy is reminiscent of the 2012 run by oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who was widely suspected to have run in a bid to split the opposition vote — an accusation the billionaire denied.

Such maneuvers hardly seem necessary: In the end, Prokhorov lost the election with 8 percent of the vote to Putin's 63.6 percent. It seems more likely that candidates like Sobchak are needed to lend an air of legitimacy to Russia's democracy, which has long ceased to be a one-party system and now looks more like a one-person system — something that may be turning off Russian voters.

Last month, Bloomberg View's Leonid Bershidsky pointed to declining turnout in regional elections as a potential problem for the Kremlin. “Putin may already suspect that he runs a country of cynics who tolerate him because they have no choice or because they profit from it,” Bershidsky wrote. “A low turnout could make this official.”

Giving the role of sacrificial challenger to a true opposition figure like dogged anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny is probably too much genuine democracy. But Sobchak, an apparently non-threatening celebrity politician whose run looks to have Kremlin approval, seems to fit the bill.

Navalny appears to think as much himself. When rumors about Sobchak's candidacy first appeared a few weeks ago, he offered a warning: “They need a cartoonish liberal candidate at a time when they don’t want to allow me to enter the race.” Navalny, who is currently serving a 20-day jail term for organizing a protest without government approval, cannot run next year because of several felony convictions — ones he says were designed to disqualify him.

No matter the reason for Sobchak's run, it is worth paying attention close attention to the election. Putin is now 65, and it may be approaching the time where a genuine succession plan will be required. And while his theoretical reelection is all but assured, how Putin plays next year's vote could indicate where Russian politics will be heading.

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