Putin finally finds an election opponent... the "Russian Paris Hilton"

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the sad state of affairs in the upcoming Russian Presidential election. Vladimir Putin has expressed his regrets that he just couldn’t find anyone to run against him and wishes that the race could be more competitive. Now, in what might be viewed as something of a Christmas miracle, Vlad has not just one, but two potential contenders for the presidency. Sort of.

The first challenger is well known to younger, more liberal Russians, and is a long-time critic of Putin and the Moscow establishment. Alexey Navalny has been riling up crowds around the country for a while, calling for reforms in the authoritarian state and greater freedom for the nation’s citizens. He set up a kick-off effort to get his campaign started recently, setting the stage for a long-shot bid which should prove quite lively at the debates. Or at least it would have if the Russian version of the Federal Election Commission didn’t disqualify him almost immediately. (CNN)

Russia’s Central Election Commission (CEC) rejected Navalny’s registration the day after he submitted it, citing a previous embezzlement conviction, RIA-Novosti reported.

“Firstly, a citizen who has been sentenced to imprisonment for committing a grave or especially grave crime and who has an outstanding conviction for the said crime, has no right to be elected president of the Russian federation,” said CEC member Boris Ebzeev.

The decision was not a surprise. Navalny’s candidacy was unlikely because Russian law prevents convicted criminals from running for public office, though Navalny and his supporters have said his conviction was politically motivated to block his presidential bid.

Yes, it turns out that Navalny has a prior conviction for embezzlement. Since that is considered a “grave crime” under Russian law it apparently disqualifies him. Of course, Putin’s detractors point out that nearly everyone who gathers a following among the opposition generally winds up being arrested, charged and usually convicted of something or other fairly quickly. This seems to work out rather conveniently for Putin when it comes time to field candidates. Was Navalny actually guilty? I’ll leave that to the eye of the beholder.

But never fear! Even if Navalny is out of the running, the liberals in Russia have another candidate ready to go. Her name is Ksenia Sobchak, a wealthy socialite and heiress known as the “Russian Paris Hilton” in Moscow’s social circles. Since we’ll clearly want to get a sense of what Putin will be facing, check out this brief news clip where she speaks about her political agenda which seems a bit… thin on details and policy positions. She does, however, seem to have a spectacular sense of fashion.

There are some nagging questions over not only how serious of a contender Sobchak might be, but whether she really opposes Putin at all to begin with. She may be “challenging” Putin, but she’s also the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and former mayor of St. Petersburgh who is a close ally of Putin. There are suspicions that Putin actually wants her to be the liberal candidate to turn the race into a farce.

But why bother? Putin’s approval ratings are in the 80s, at least according to state-run media. Some may scoff at that and blame the tight grip that Putin has over the media and the voters themselves, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that the guy really is popular in Russia. As hard as it may be to believe from a Western perspective, many Russians long for the days when the U.S.S.R. was a dominant global force and want to see their country maintain that sort of status. In Gallup’s most recent survey, Putin was holding an 81% approval rating and his citizens were very much in favor of their leader’s actions in Crimea.

The European press produces similar polling results and interviews with what we would consider “focus groups” in the United States reflect why he’s still popular. Voters describe Putin as a harsh but just ruler and credit him with restoring Russian power after the chaos which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. He’s also been around for so long now that he’s seen as a known and mostly trusted commodity, even while Russian voters feel that much of Russian government is corrupt overall.

So Putin will at least have a name on the ballot opposite his in the next election. But I don’t think this one is going to be a nail-biter.