Russian human rights icon Sergey Kovalev joined Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign, and then he bailed one day later. What happened?

22:31, 15 february 2018

On February 14, the human rights activist Sergey Kovalev announced that he was ending his cooperation with Ksenia Sobchak’s presidential campaign, just a day after the collaboration was announced. Kovalev accused Sobchak's film crew of “arrogant behavior.” The television star’s campaign initially accused the liberal political party Yabloko of pressuring Kovalev into leaving, before later issuing a rather reluctant apology.

Sobchak recorded a video with Kovalev

On February 13, Ksenia Sobchak's presidential campaign announced that Sergey Kovalev — a Soviet dissident and Russia's first human rights commissioner — had agreed to be one of her authorized delegates. Kovalev is a member of the liberal political party Yabloko, which is fielding its own candidate, Grigory Yavlinsky, in the March 18 presidential election. After Sobchak met with Kovalev, her website claimed that he’d promised “to vote for Ksyusha [Sobchak],” abandoning his own party.

“I realize there'll be [problems] with Grigory Alekseyevich [Yavlinsky]. Oh well. I'll write to him. […] He'll be annoyed, but I don't think it's a [problem]," Kovalev told Sobchak. The human rights campaigner added that there are plenty of worthy opposition politicians, but they compete against each other, and Sobchak is speaking on behalf of all civil society, Kovalev said, before signing an appeal to Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin advocating the creation of a memorial to slain politician Boris Nemtsov.

Sobchak's website also posted a video from Kovalev's apartment, where a camera crew from the TV network Rossiya was also filming his meeting with Sobchak (though Rossiya never published its footage, afterwards). The filming took place in Kovalev’s kitchen, were reporters and at least three cameramen were working, putting questions to the Russian human rights icon.

The very next day, Kovalev said he’d made a mistake

After the meeting, Yabloko published an open letter from Kovalev to Sobchak, where the human rights activist said he “hurried” the decision to work with her campaign, writing: "I'm impressed by your stated clever intention effectively to reinstate the ‘against all’ option in the elections (it's no accident that this option was officially abolished) by playing the part of ‘madam against all.’”

Kovalev said the reason for his letter was the way his meeting with Sobchak was filmed: before the film crews arrived, he says he and Sobchak were simply “chatting calmly.” Then “all of a sudden,” a group of people with cameras and microphones “materialized without warning, without knocking on the door or ringing the bell.” “This isn't the first time this has happened to me, and usually I just tell them to get out. But these were your people!” Kovalev told Sobchak in the letter, adding, “These are probably the professional methods of a politician and showwoman.” He says he failed to raise any objections at the time because he was “at a loss.” “It's entirely my fault. Forgive me," he wrote.

Sobchak's conversation with Mr. Kovalev
Ksenia Sobchak

After the letter was published, Kovalev told reporters that he’d changed his mind and decided to vote for Yavlinsky, after all, though he says he knows Yabloko's candidate doesn't stand a chance.

Sobchak’s campaign thinks Kovalev was pressured into withdrawing his support

Andrey Nechayev, the head of the political party “Civil Initiative,” which nominated Sobchak, says it was Kovalev who first reached out to the campaign, saying he wanted to become an official proxy, after reading Sobchak’s platform. “My assumption is that Kovalev later had a tough conversation with the Yabloko leadership, or something else made him change his position in just a few hours," Nechayev wrote on Facebook.

On February 15, Ksenia Sobchak published her own letter asking Sergey Kovalev to forgive her for filming their meeting. “Although you verbally allowed me to invite the cameraman who was waiting in the hallway, my request may not have been tactful enough to show part of our meeting, and the filming really just added unnecessary fuss to our conversation,” Sobchak wrote, saying nothing about any pressure put on Kovalev by Yabloko. Her YouTube channel later uploaded a video showing the beginning of her meeting with Kovalev.

This isn’t the first complaint against Sobchak’s camera crews

On January 15, after an appearance on Ekho Moskvy, Sobchak and an assistant entered the neighboring recording room, where Navalny campaign manager Leonid Volkov was preparing for a show. She demanded that Volkov apologize “for defamation” about her recent trip to Bali during Russia’s campaign season. Volkov later criticized Beata Bubenec for filming the screen of his laptop. Bubenec, who directed a controversial documentary about the war in eastern Ukraine, also filmed Sobchak’s meeting with Kovalev. In the end, Ekho Moskvy's newsreader had to shout at Sobchak to get her to stop interfering with the broadcast. The station's chief editor, Alexey Venediktov, later apologized to listeners for the incident.

Text by Mikhail Zelensky, translation by Peter Marshall