Now Shaking Up Russia: The Bernie Bro Taking on Putin on His Home Turf
The strategist for a socialite candidate running what’s seemed a quixotic campaign against Putin for the presidency already has handed the Kremlin some surprises.
MOSCOW—The campaign headquarters for the youngest candidate in the history of Russia’s presidency, 36-year-old Ksenia Sobchak, was packed, and yet more fans tried to squeeze their way in from Petrovka Street, a few blocks from the Kremlin. They were there just to catch a glimpse of the pretty socialite and hear her talk—a rare crowd in a rare scene for Moscow, usually sleepy and empty during the New Year holiday week.
With passports in hand to certify their identities, people lined up to sign a paper supporting Sobchak’s registration for the presidential election in March. Bundled in a mink coat, Russian Senator Lyudmila Narusova pushed her way in, a passport in her hand as well. Kuznetsky Squad, a teen band, rapped a campaign song for the crowd with lyrics that sounded slightly out place: “I feel like I’m in bad German porn. Do you know how to strip tease, accurately, accidentally?” And then the chorus: “There is Sobchak on my body, there is Sobchak on my ballot.”
In the background the presidential candidate, a slim woman in a short-sleeve COCO T-shirt and round glasses smiled her big red-lipped Cheshire Cat smile—more demure than her past celeb mode that invited comparison to Kardashians—and happy to see a forest of cell phones filming her and her campaigners.
Her team is generally made up of well-educated young women and men, champions at mobilizing crowds. But the success of the turnout at Sobchak’s event was, to a large extent, the result of strategic decisions and political technologies used by her campaign managers. And Sobchak’s senior adviser in this part of her multi-faceted career is Vitaly Shkliarov a Russian speaker whose electoral skills were very much made in America.
Shkliarov spent almost six years gaining experience in Wisconsin, in Virginia and Washington state working for multiple congressional and presidential candidates, including Barack Obama, Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin, who is the first openly gay U.S. Senator in history, and the surprising, insurgent presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders last year.
Now that Shkliarov is back here in Moscow, he says, “Our strategy is to illustrate to Russian society what a great, unique chance [incumbent President Vladimir] Putin’s team has lost by not reforming the country, [and that] it is possible that we are not going to see another chance like that for decades.”
A 41-year-old citizen of Belarus, he left home in 1998, hitchhiked to Germany and finished graduate school there. But Shkliarov says his home is now Washington D.C.
He got his PhD in social and political sciences at the University of Vechta in northwestern Germany and while there he heard then-Senator Barack Obama give a campaign speech at a rally in Berlin in 2008. After that, as Shkliarov told The Daily Beast, “I dreamed of working for Obama’s campaign in 2011-2012.”
Shkliarov moved to the U.S. in 2010 and the next year joined Obama’s campaign, first as a volunteer, then as a call manager.
Working his way from one candidate to another, he served the Bernie Sanders campaign as the deputy state director responsible for mobilization in Washington State and proudly notes that Sanders won 72 percent of the vote there. “That was one of our coolest victories, we managed to beat Hillary [Clinton] by 22 percent.”
Russian liberals often criticize Sobchak for being “Putin’s goddaughter,” for playing the role of a fake candidate. A few weeks ago, when Sobchak broke the news that she would run in the 2018 presidential election from the opposition, most liberal experts, including some of Sobchak’s friends suspected the Kremlin’s hand behind her move. Critics blame Sobchak for betraying opposition leader Alexei Navalny and hundreds of thousands of his supporters, who have been protesting around dozens of Russian cities. The Kremlin would not register Navalny’s candidacy for the presidency but allowed Sobchak to run.
Some figures in the Democratic Party in the U.S. have criticized Shkliarov for working with Sobchak. “This former Sanders staffer is now working in Russia for Putin’s handpicked ‘opponent’ Ksenia Sobchak,” the co-founder and executive director of Ready for Hillary, Adam Parkhomenko, tweeted recently. “She is a fake candidate propped up by the Kremlin. Not even a hidden secret. Very disturbing.”
Shkliarov reacts to Parkhomenko’s post with a sad smile. “Back in the U.S. I heard tons of accusations. People called me ... a Russian spy working for Sanders,” he said. And it seems he has no illusions about Sobchak’s cynical roll. But at the same time he insists that Russia is a completely different story from the U.S. and nobody should judge him unless they actually tried themselves to work in the elections in Moscow.
“There is a full monopoly of power, a white and black Russian world, where Putin is black and Alexey Navalny is white,” he said. “Navalny was not registered, so we could just sit and complain for six years or we could do something useful and make the difference.”
Shkliarov denied he is or was a spy: “I have never in my life worked for any state.” And he says he is convinced that Sobchak’s campaign was the only chance for liberal Russians today.
His track record so far is impressive. Last year Shkliarov came to work in Russia to campaign for opposition candidates in the municipal elections: 267 independent and opposition candidates won the elections to become deputies for Moscow district councils.
“Vitaly Shkliarov’s creativity helped us to win,” opposition leader Dmitry Gudkov told The Daily Beast. “He is the best campaign manager for us, independent candidates who have no access to television.”
Shkliarov and his colleagues created software that helped them engage supporters and mobilize people for public events. “All Russian well-known campaigners use the same old clichés and he brought us new technologies,” Gudkov added.
It was very quiet at the campaign headquarters when Sobchak spoke about the war in Ukraine and annexation of Crimea: “Unfortunately, our people do not get that there is a direct connection between annexation of Crimea, growing prices and failing economy—our GDP is already somewhere next to Peru’s,” she said. “We took an aggressive step and we received an aggressive response, sanctions. In February the next wave of sanctions will choke our economy, our banks,” Sobchak continued, confidently treading where others might fear to go.
The Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea was what had inspired Russian patriotism in the last three years, and in October when Sobchak said that “Crimea is Ukrainian” the remark made a huge part of the population angry, some even suggested she should be investigated for extremism.
But Sobchak’s strategist, Shkliarov, is convinced that politicians who admit their governments’ mistakes wind up the winners. “I was deeply impressed with Obama’s address to the People of Berlin, with him admitting America’s mistakes, as I’d grown up in a country where nobody liked to admit their weaknesses, their unjustified actions,” Shkliarov remembered. “I wanted to hear an honest voice in Russia, that would apologize for all the mistakes—so my main advice for Sobchak is not to lie.”
It will be up to Sobchak to follow that advice, or not.