Can a Woman Lead Russia?

Evgeniy Isaev/Flickr

On October 18, Russian journalist and TV host Ksenia Sobchak officially declared her intention to run for president of Russia.

For months, both domestic and foreign media have debated the possibility of a female candidate in the Russian presidential race. Unsurprisingly, most analysts have drawn cynical and sexist conclusions, arguing that a woman cannot solve Russia’s problems.

Now that a woman is willing to enter the race, the media has grown even more antagonistic. This is just one of the many challenges that Sobchak—and any woman who plans to run for president of Russia—will have to face before the election in March.

Another challenge is Russian society’s intolerance towards the idea of a woman leading the country. A recent Levada Center poll indicates that more than half of Russians would not approve of a female president in the next 10 to 15 years. When asked which woman they could see as president, more than a third of respondents found it difficult to answer. Another 32 percent said they do not think such a woman exists in Russia.

A female candidate would also face another significant challenge given the current political climate: she would automatically be seen as part of the Kremlin’s master plan. For weeks, the Russian media has been feeding people the idea that the government will “pick” a female candidate to run against President Putin. In fact, Russian newspaper Vedomosti reported that the Kremlin had a whole list of potential female politicians they were considering for the role.

Analysts have suggested that introducing a female candidate is one way Putin’s administration could boost interest in politics and increase voter turnout, especially since recent parliamentary and regional elections saw turnout as low as 13 percent in some regions. It could also improve Russia’s international image, demonstrating that the country is making steps towards gender equality. For these reasons, any woman running for president would be seen as a pawn in what some experts have called the Kremlin’s “managed democracy.”

It has already started for Sobchak. The Russian media has depicted her candidacy as a show, a farce, a conspiracy to split the liberal opposition—you name it. She has been described as Moscow’s tool to legitimize Putin’s victory and distract from activist Alexey Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign. In short, Sobchak is anything but a woman trying to make her way into Russian politics.

How this presidential race develops will have significant consequences for the future of gender balance in Russian politics. On one hand, if Sobchak manages to run a successful campaign, it could encourage young Russian girls to pursue careers in politics and aim at the highest levels of government. On the other hand, the media’s antagonism toward Sobchak may have the opposite effect.

Since Sobchak announced her bid, she has become the least trusted public person in Russia. To explain this phenomenon, sociologists argue that Russians are used to a traditional and patriarchal style of politics, so they are annoyed by Sobchak’s ambitions. These sexist attitudes have become more pronounced since other women have publicly discussed the idea of running for president. For example, when journalist Ekaterina Gordon announced her plan to enter the race, the media called the campaign a “beauty pageant.” With Sobchak and Gordon receiving so little support from Russian society and bearing the brunt of so much sexism, their bids for the presidency will likely deter young women from entering into politics at all.

Post-Soviet Russian politics have been run by an exclusive male club and desperately need alternative ways of thinking. In elections since 1989, only two women have run for president. In 2000, Ella Pamfilova received around 1 percent of votes, and in 2004, Irina Khakamada managed to collect almost 4 percent. When we compare this to some European countries, where women are heads of state, or to the United States, where Clinton received more votes than Trump, Russia seems backward.

This is not to argue that there should be female candidates just for the sake of filling a quota or boosting Russia’s “soft power.” Such an approach can actually be counterproductive. For instance, while the amount of women in the Russian Duma has recently increased, gender equality has not improved, and many of these female legislators are depicted in ways that reinforce traditional stereotypes. The challenge, therefore, is not simply to increase the number of women in leadership positions, but to create conditions that encourage more women to participate in politics.

In order for Sobchak to officially run as an independent candidate, she still needs to gather 300,000 signatures from at least 40 regions across Russia within a short period of time. Even if she manages, she will continue to face the enormous obstacles that the media, the public and other politicians have placed in front of women who aspire to run for office.

So in the near future, it’s unlikely a woman will be able to lead Russia.

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