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Splurge scandal at restaurant

by Anna Arutunyan at 27/10/2011 20:56

An acrimonious spat over spending money at an expensive Moscow restaurant has pitted Russia’s top socialite and TV personality, Ksenia Sobchak, against the head of the Rosmolodezh state youth agency, Vasily Yakemenko – the controversial official behind the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement.

Nashi – while criticized for its resemblance to Soviet-era youth organizations – clearly has support from the government.

So why is its founder suddenly fair game for establishment jetsetters like Sobchak?

This may have more to do with Sobchak than Yakemenko, experts and observers are saying.

The incident was annoying enough for Rosmolodezh to circulate a request to the media demanding sites remove the video for violating a Civil Code article protecting right to privacy. As of Thursday, however, the video was widely available – and the blogosphere debates were still raging, ref lecting heightening tensions within the elite ahead of the parliamentary and presidential elections.

The scandal exploded Monday after Sobchak posted a video on her Twitter showing Yakemenko just about to order food at Mario’s – one of Russia’s finest restaurants and a haunt for celebrities and oligarchs such as Mikhail Prokhorov.

Sobchak, who was surprised to see a state official at such an expensive venue, started asking him for an interview for GQ magazine, where she is a frequent contributor. But Yakemenko, clearly uncomfortable in front of the camera, refused.

“Hi there! We’re in Moscow’s most expensive restaurant, Mario’s,” a chirpy Sobchak says into the camera. “And look who’s here! It’s Vasily Yakemenko!” The sarcasm wasn’t lost on Yakemenko, who said he’d agree to an interview “only if you change your opinion about my reputation.”

And his reputation was exactly what Sobchak wanted to talk about in a series of cutting remarks about where he got the money to eat out at such expensive restaurants. “Look at this restaurant, this menu – Bellini champagne for 1,300 rubles a glass, fresh oysters for 500 rubles each. I mean, it’s not surprising for me to be here, I’m a socialite, but you!” Sobchak said. “It’s everything for the party with you, everything for Nashi.”

After Yakemenko’s final refusal, Sobchak suggested he try the Belon oysters and left him alone. Sobchak later poked fun at comments made by Yakemenko during the Seliger Youth Forum in 2009, where he announced a plan to eat less and stay fitter. “A person who eats more than he needs robs the country and robs [Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin,” he said then, according to Vedomosti.

Scoring points

Nashi’s outspoken blogger, Kristina Potupchik – now an official representative of Rosmolodezh – lashed out at Sobchak in a Livejournal post, calling the socialite and TV host a “cheap prostitute,” and questioning what she was doing in the restaurant in the first place.

Still, for Sobchak herself, the move scored points for her image not just as a pampered celebrity and a host of the reviled reality show “Dom-2”, but as someone who pulled no punches when criticizing the government establishment.

Her growing outspokenness – she has taken searing interviews with Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov and the scandal-embroiled head of the Federation Fund charity, Vladimir Kiselyov for GQ – takes on a different meaning when her closeness to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is taken into account, experts said.

“Sobchak has always been doing this, the only taboo for her is Putin, simply because he saved her father,” Stanislav Belkovsky, an independent political expert, told The Moscow News. “And this is easy to understand and justify.”

He was referring to former St. Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak – who helped Putin, then a KGB officer, launch his career in politics. Putin has since remained loyal to Sobchak, helping him escape quietly to France in 1998 to avoid corruption charges. Sobchak died in 2000 of heart failure,leaving behind a legacy as one of Russia’s first democratic reformers. Putin’s reported affection for the Sobchak family is widely believed to give Ksenia Sobchak a protected status, which may also explain her boldness.

But the attack on Yakemenko did not indicate changes in his status. “Yakemenko plays an important role as someone who carries out the dirty work. That’s why he is valued by the Kremlin,” Belkovsky explained, saying that criticism against him didn’t matter.

As to whether the spat indicates wider tensions within the elites, Belkovsky likened the process to a “Perestroika 2.0,” a gradual reform process that would continue even with Putin returning to the presidency.

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