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Russian TV personality and presidential candidate, Ksenia Sobchak speaks during a meeting with her supporters at Mad Max bar in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Feb. 3, 2018.

Anton Vaganov

Ksenia Sobchak has seen every side of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, from the benefits of being a protected friend to the dangers of opposing the Kremlin. Now, as she runs for president against Mr. Putin – in a bid that has split the country’s political opposition ahead of Sunday’s election here – many Russians are wondering which side she really stands on now.

Ms. Sobchak was once the party-girl face of the prosperity that Mr. Putin delivered, with help from sky-high oil prices, in the early 2000s. Boosted by a personal connection to the President – her father was Mr. Putin’s political mentor – Ms. Sobchak hosted her own reality-TV show and was a fixture on the cover of magazines, including the local edition of Playboy. She was dubbed, and dismissed as, the Paris Hilton of Russia.

Then she turned against her patron. In 2011, as tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest a fraudulent election – chanting, “Russia without Putin!” – Ms. Sobchak joined them. She began using her celebrity to criticize Mr. Putin’s authoritarianism and became the journalistic face of TV Rain, an independent station fiercely critical of the Kremlin.

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The protests failed, and Mr. Putin tightened his grip on the country.

When opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was gunned down outside the Kremlin walls in 2015, there were whispers that the assassins had a list of targets – and Ms. Sobchak’s name was on it. She briefly fled the country.

Now she’s back, once more challenging the 65-year-old Mr. Putin. Or so it would seem.

Eyebrows were raised when Russia’s Central Election Commission allowed Ms. Sobchak’s candidacy while rejecting that of the country’s de facto opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, who has spent the past six years building up a nationwide political movement.

Mr. Navalny was disqualified because of a 2014 criminal conviction that his supporters say was trumped up by the Kremlin to sideline the only person capable of mounting a genuine challenge to Mr. Putin. (Mr. Navalny clearly irritates the Kremlin: Mr. Putin and his surrogates won’t even speak Mr. Navalny’s name in public, referring instead to “that individual” or “the convicted citizen.”)

Mr. Navalny is now calling on his mostly young and middle-class supporters to boycott the March 18 election. Ms. Sobchak is aiming to convince the same demographic to vote for her instead, using the slogan “Against All” to position herself as the protest candidate.

In this file photo taken on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, centre, attends a rally in Moscow.

Evgeny Feldman/The Associated Press

Many opposition activists say they smell a Kremlin plot to make the vote seem like a real contest, comparing Ms. Sobchak’s candidacy to that of oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov’s six years ago. Mr. Prokhorov campaigned on a program of liberal economic reforms and won 8 per cent of the vote, giving the 2012 campaign a gloss of legitimacy while never really posing a threat to Mr. Putin’s rule. Mr. Prokhorov then disappeared from the political stage.

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With her popularity stuck near 1 per cent in state-run opinion polls, Ms. Sobchak’s campaign admits there’s no chance she will defeat Mr. Putin, whose support level is at almost 70 per cent in the same polls.

“Our main problem is that Ksenia has huge negative ratings. There are a lot of people who don’t like her” because of her previous socialite image, said Marina Litvinovich, a political consultant advising Ms. Sobchak.

But Ms. Litvinovich says that even voters who dislike Ms. Sobchak see the 36-year-old as someone who is brave and dares to speak the truth. Ms. Litvinovich says the real goal of Ms. Sobchak’s campaign is to use the presidential election to reintroduce herself and her ideas to the country. Afterward, Ms. Sobchak – who studied politics at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations – plans to create a new liberal party that will seek to win seats in the 2021 parliamentary election.

There are currently no genuine Putin opponents in Russia’s 450-seat parliament. But with Mr. Putin constitutionally barred from running again in the next presidential election, in 2024, Russia’s stagnant political scene could see a shakeup over the next six years.

So far Ms. Sobchak, by undermining Mr. Navalny’s call for a boycott, has only managed to splinter the country’s opposition. Allies during the anti-Putin protests of 2011 and 2012, she and Mr. Navalny are now openly feuding, with Mr. Navalny dismissing her as a “caricature liberal candidate.”

A tattoo depicts Ksenia Sobchak and reads "Against all" in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, on Nov. 20, 2017.

Ilya Naymushin

Ms. Litvinovich, meanwhile, accuses Mr. Navalny of having “become like Mr. Putin himself,” someone unwilling to tolerate the voices of those who disagree with him.

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“Navalny’s strategy is different. He wants to break down the system,” Ms. Litvinovich said. “Ksenia says it’s better to take part and to try and change the system from within.”

With the result of the election seen as predetermined, Mr. Navalny’s call for a boycott is seen as the bigger test of whether Mr. Putin, after 18 years as either president or prime minister, still rules with the people’s consent. Voter turnout in the 2012 presidential election was 65 per cent, down from 70 per cent in the previous campaign.

“Sobchak will get several per cent [of the vote], but she will also discredit liberal discourse, liberal values,” said Andrei Kolesnikov, chair of the domestic politics program at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think tank. “She’s unpleasant for many Russians because she’s a girl from high society. And the majority understand that she’s participating with the Kremlin’s consent, as a Kremlin project.”

While Ms. Sobchak admits that she spoke with Mr. Putin before announcing her candidacy – for a documentary she’s making about her father, Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg – she denies that Mr. Putin approved the idea. “I’m nobody’s puppet,” she told one interviewer.

Indeed, she has used her campaign – and the time on state-controlled television that candidates are given – to raise ideas that are rarely discussed in Russian politics. She has called the 2014 annexation of Crimea illegal and said that some of the Western sanctions against Russia are justified.

She has campaigned in Chechnya, raising the plight of human-rights activists there, and has even hinted that it’s past time for Mr. Putin to retire.

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“I want to show the people of Russia that there is another point of view. This is the goal of my campaign,” Ms. Sobchak said last week on the state-funded RT channel.

Just starting a debate, she suggested, would be a victory in itself. “I know you can’t win in the elections, where only Putin always wins.”

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