Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Paris vs. Putin

Are wealthy urban elites the latest group to turn against Russia's Vladimir Putin?  That’s the takeaway from a few articles recently discussing an unusual new phenomenon ahead of Russia's March 4 presidential elections.  It seems that well-heeled socialites are among the groups turning out in street protests against the Era of Putin in Moscow and St. Petersburg.  According to this report from Reuters, white ribbons – the symbol of the protest movement – are the hot new fashion accessory, and, in the  right social circles, there is a need to explain why your absence from the most recent public protest.  Among Russia's nouveau riche, there is perhaps no bigger socialite than Ksenia Sobchak – a model, media personality, host of the reality TV show Dom-2 (Russia's answer to Big Brother), now an unlikely addition to the anti-Putin brigade.

Sobchak's appearance at an anti-Putin rally would be like Paris Hilton pitching a tent at an Occupy Wall Street encampment, a point The Guardian hammers home in their lengthy piece on Russia's radical socialite.  But there is an important subtext to Sobchak's new-found political activism: Sobchak's father Anatoly was the mayor of St. Petersburg during the 1990s and started the political career of a young former intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin; Putin and the Sobchaks became and remain close personal friends, making Ksenia’s defection a quasi-family affair.  For her part, Ksenia Sobchak says that Putin is, at heart, a good person.  But like many other Russians, Ksenia seems to have been angered by Putin's decision to run for a third term as president after failing to deliver on promises of reform and to fight Russia's culture of corruption for the past 12 years.

Ksenia Sobchak's career as Russia's most-unlikely political radical began with a televised debate with one of the founders of the rabidly pro-Kremlin youth movement Nashi (Russian for “Ours”).  Ksenia then traded in her hostessing gig on Dom-2 to become the moderator on a youth-oriented current affairs program on Russia's MTV channel called Gosdep (a Russian abbreviation for “Department of State”).  The first episode, entitled Where is Putin Taking Us? set the tone for the series by featuring a panel of figures from the political opposition typically barred from Russia's Kremlin-friendly television landscape.  That first episode proved to be Gosdep's last, despite good ratings.  Ksenia's decision to feature anti-Putin blogger and one of the de facto leaders of the opposition movement, Alexei Navalny, seems to have also been a factor in the show's cancellation.  Ahead of the March 4 election, the Kremlin is widely being blamed for a shake-up of management at Ekho Moscow the radio station which has been one of the few independent outlets on broadcast TV or radio.

Ksenia Sobchak may have lost her current affairs TV program, but she hasn't lost her fame and public persona, two factors that should make her difficult for the Kremlin to marginalize, while her desire to speak out against the failures of the Putin regime are a sign of just how deeply the anti-Putin sentiment is running in Russia today.
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