In Stratfor's Fourth-Quarter Forecast, we said the Kremlin would attempt to counter growing opposition groups by taking advantage of their divisions. This is exactly what is happening with the Kremlin's likely role in well-known socialite Ksenia Sobchak's bid for the presidency as a liberal candidate. Meanwhile, Russia's Communists are regaining popularity and attempting to unify behind a single candidate.
Events in Russia this week offered a glimpse into how the country's election season may play out. On Oct. 18, socialite-turned-journalist Ksenia Sobchak announced her intent to run for president against incumbent Vladimir Putin. Sobchak's father, Anatoly, was mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s and mentored Putin before his move into politics. He is considered responsible for promoting many of Russia's leaders to their current positions. His daughter, now entering the arena, has vacillated between political stances in the past, occasionally involving herself in protest movements but at other times refusing to criticize Putin.
As the liberal movement gains popularity, the Kremlin is widely believed to support Sobchak's candidacy in an attempt to divide its opponents. It could also be trying to energize the election — which Putin will almost certainly win — by including such a well-known female candidate in the race. In fact, most liberal opposition leaders have condemned Sobchak's candidacy. Opposition heavyweight Alexei Navalny, who is barred from running, called Sobchak "the Kremlin's ideal caricature liberal candidate." And longtime opposition leader Garry Kasparov said "the rule of bread and circuses is that when bread runs low, hire more clowns and throw more people to the lions," implying Sobchak is a Kremlin diversion. Even if this is the case, the Kremlin's strategy is not risk-free. Sobchak can be a wildcard at times, and if she teams up with Navalny to act as his proxy, she could swing the liberal vote.
As liberal factions recuperate from Sobchak's announcement, the leader of the Communist Party, Gennady Zyuganov, is holding talks to unite competing leftist factions behind a single candidate to challenge Putin. The Communists have long been part of Russia's systemic opposition, tolerated by and sometimes even included in the Russian government, but the Party is currently going through a rebranding process to draw in wider support, especially from younger Russians. Zyuganov has run for president four times, twice against Putin, but the indications are that he will not run in 2018 so he can lend his support to a younger candidate from the left.
There is no chance Putin will lose the election next spring, but his opposition is strengthening. That strength was clearly evident in September when the liberal opposition gained majority seats in the Moscow region. It is also evident in Putin's replacement of 19 governors this year (11 in the last month) for their perceived disloyalty to the Kremlin. Putin has reason to fear: He is currently the longest-serving Russian leader since Joseph Stalin, who led the Soviet Union for three decades. And no leader can rule without pushback forever.