MOSCOW - Russia's answer to Paris Hilton has emerged as a surprise critic of Vladimir Putin in a protest movement that has pitted the wealthy socialite against the man her father once mentored.
Ksenia Sobchak, a Playboy cover girl and television compere with a reputation for hard partying, has made no secret of her views, especially since her new political talk show was axed after just one episode, entitled "Where is Putin taking us?".
She had made the mistake of inviting on to the show Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the biggest anti-Kremlin protests since Putin rose to power.
Sobchak then stirred things up by making a spoof video mocking celebrities who have filmed messages in support of Putin's presidential campaign.
In the video, posted on the Internet, Sobchak seemingly pledges her vote to the 59-year-old prime minister, only for the camera to pan out, showing her tied to her chair and flanked by armed guards.
"I want Putin to go," Sobchak, 30, told Reuters before the March 4 presidential election he is expected to win. "I want a change in leadership and fair elections."
She is taking on a man who was once a close ally of her father, late St Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, for whom Putin worked as a deputy in the 1990s.
Sobchak's 2011 income is estimated at $2.8 million by Forbes, and like the American hotel heiress Paris Hilton, she had a privileged upbringing -- benefiting from a system of political patronage that has flourished under Putin.
She has been criticised as a celebrity party lover but her new television series was intended to be a more high-brow venture, even though she appeared in the first programme wearing a T-shirt with a picture of Putin as a child.
The political debate she hosted with members of the opposition and pro-Putin groups on Russian MTV was unusually lively in a country where the Kremlin has a tight grip on the media.
In an tongue-in-cheek reference to allegations by Putin -- denied by Washington -- that the United States is funding Russia's opposition, she called the series "Gosdep" after the Russian term for the U.S. State Department.
Russian MTV explained its decision to cancel the series by saying the channel's young audience wanted entertainment, not politics. Sobchak said it wanted to keep Navalny off the air.
Billionaire presidential candidate Mikhail Prokhorov has since offered to host the show online.
"At last I have experienced censorship," Sobchak said, predicting that Putin would do more to tighten the Kremlin's grip on the media when he returns to the presidency.
A poll published on Friday showed Putin would win about two thirds of the vote in the election, avoiding a second round run-off.
"I think the situation (censorship) will become worse after the election, but we will fight against it," Sobchak said on set at Internet-satellite TV channel Dozhd.
"We will go out to demonstrations of 100,000, 150,000 or 200,000 people - this is the only way (to change things). There is no doubt the authorities are afraid of this."
REPRESENTING A GENERATION
Sobchak embodies a generation that came of age under Putin's rule, which began in 2000, but have grown tired of his monopolisation of power and are frustrated with corruption.
Their frustration grew after widespread allegations of fraud in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election won by Putin's party and the announcement last September that Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev planned to swap jobs this year.
Sobchak was 10 years old when the Soviet Union collapsed. She was thrust into the public spotlight when her father died suddenly while campaigning for Putin during his successful first presidential bid in 2000.
By her mid-20s she was hosting two reality television shows, and her Twitter feed is one of Russia's most popular, with more than 367,000 followers. Her support of the protest movement has helped make it fashionable.
Her transformation into an anti-Kremlin campaigner was far from smooth. When Sobchak took the stage at one of the opposition rallies, her words were drowned out by boos.
Her message is more moderate than that of some protesters. She echoes official warnings against revolution and calls for dialogue with the authorities.
"Everyone is waiting for someone to take the stage at protests and shout, 'Let's go seize the Kremlin. Let's oust Putin or better yet hang him.' I will never shout that... all this can lead to a civil war," she said.
She said she hoped the authorities would reassess their policies.
"I am for applying pressure but not for going wild and shouting that Putin eats children for breakfast," she added.
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