The New People party has entered Russia’s State Duma, evoking many questions from outside observers, the first of which is very basic—does the sudden emergence and successful showing of New People demonstrate that it is possible to create new political parties for successful participation in elections?
The answer is simple: yes, in Russia, one can form any political party and it can take part in any elections, but under one condition: the party must be formed with the agreement of the Presidential Administration; all of its leaders and sponsors must get the blessing from the Kremlin to participate in elections; and the party itself must never, ever criticize Vladimir Putin personally, and must also refrain from criticizing the status quo as well as authorities’ decisions, which the authorities themselves would prefer to avoid discussing, anyway.
New People is such a party. Its founder, Alexei Nechaev, has no political experience, and from his interviews, we can glean that even now, he still does not have any political views. By all appearances, politics is simply a business that opens up doors to a new level of wealth and influence for Nechaev, who spent years building a major cosmetics brand.
Obviously, if the Kremlin had even an inkling that Nechaev’s sudden political ambitions posed any danger at all, they would have never allowed him to register the party in the first place, let alone run in elections. Let us not forget that Alexei Navalny and his supporters submitted documentation to register their party over ten times, only for the authorities to deny their request each time with a different, often contemptuous excuse. Alexei Nechaev faced no such challenges—his party was formed on March 1, 2020, and at no point since then has it faced any difficulties. By September 2021, it was already in the Duma.
It is important to keep in mind that the Russian authorities control the participation in politics by the wealthy with an iron fist. In the view of Vladimir Putin and his entourage, money is the most important factor in politics, rather than ideas. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s misadventures are largely related to the fact that he was a very rich man with political ambitions, which is something that threatened Putin, who believed then, as he still does, that money can buy anyone and anything—and therefore seize power, too. Alexei Nechaev is also a rich man, but the fact that he was allowed to pursue his own political ambitions means that Putin views him as no real danger at all.
The second question is also fairly obvious—why did the Kremlin need another party at all, especially with seats in the Duma? There are many possible explanations. First, for some time now, the current political system has been not able to respond to the society’s needs, and many voters are frustrated with the established parties. Therefore, it is only natural for the Kremlin’s political puppet-masters to constantly be on the outlook for opportunities for the controlled adjustment of the party system.
Secondly, when the Kremlin has unceremoniously sidelined an entire segment of society attached to liberal, democratic, and pro-Western values from politics, it has left fertile ground for radical critics of the regime to surge in popularity. This is why the Kremlin is always looking for a way to concoct a party that would draw protest votes away from this sector of society, while also remaining malleable and toothless.
Thirdly, Putin believes it is important to maintain the façade of a multiparty democracy in Russia, and here, New People is a good trump card to throw at any critics of the Russian government. Time and again, the peddlers of the Kremlin propaganda will point toward Nechaev’s party as “proof” that anyone in Russia can form a party, take part in elections, and even join parliament—meaning that Putin’s most ardent critics have only their inability to prepare the necessary documentation for party registration and their own lack of popularity to blame for their failures here. It would be no surprise if Alexei Nechaev goes on to tour Western countries, describing his political experience and insisting that Russian democracy is flourishing, and no one is precluded from political participation.
The third main question related to the party concerns the election itself. Can we consider New People’s campaign successful, and does that explain its entry into the Duma? On the one hand, New People certainly have siphoned off some of the protest votes that might have otherwise gone to the Communist Party, thus greatly helping United Russia. On the other hand, New People’s election results look bluntly artificial, especially in a context of manipulation and fraud.
The way the Russian election system is designed, whether a party teetering just on the threshold of five percent enters parliament hinges entirely on what the Kremlin wants, politically. Obviously, if the Kremlin does not want the party in parliament, there are many ways to “correct” the final vote tally so that the party receives just 4.99 rather than an even five percent, and no one will ever be able to prove that there had been enough votes to enter the Duma. If the Kremlin decides it does want the party in parliament, it will get slightly more than five percent, even if the real figure was lower.
In September’s elections, New People received 5.33 percent of the vote, which, given all of the above, looks less like an electoral victory and more like the conscious desire of someone inside the Kremlin to introduce this specific party into the Duma. When we consider that from its very beginnings, New People has been linked to the First Deputy Chief of Staff of the Presidential Administration, Sergei Kirienko, it becomes plausible that the order to ensure Nechaev’s party a place in the Duma might have come directly from him.
There is also an anecdotal account of how New People managed to worm its way into the Duma. According to this hypothesis, the initial plan was not for it to enter parliament at all, but to rather draw away a portion of the protest vote and receive state funding as a result of the election, and the right to nominate candidates in all future elections. However, with the Kremlin consumed with fighting Alexei Navalny’s “smart voting” during the final weeks of the campaign, plans were changed.
The fight against smart voting took on several different forms. The authorities worked to discredit the very idea of technical protest voting, both in the constituencies and on the party lists. Given that local and regional elections are coming up, and the presidential elections will be held in 2024, the Kremlin had a large stake in convincing the widest cross-section of voters that smart voting organizers are mistaken in their predictions, and therefore should not be listened to, now or in the future.
When it came to party lists, Navalny’s team suggested voting not for United Russia, but for one of the three parliamentary parties, as nonparliamentary parties had no chance of entering the Duma, and therefore voting for them would actually help United Russia. Kremlin propaganda torpedoed this idea in several directions: they talked about how amoral it was to vote for the Communists, and how the right thing to do was either to not vote at all, or vote for Yabloko or New People. While Yabloko worked in its traditional niche, attempting in vain to garner support from its former voters; New People was able to consistently position itself as a party headed to the Duma, and therefore, a good option for a protest vote. Shortly before the elections, pro-government polling agencies, which publish party approval ratings, began talking about the possibility of New People making it into the Duma. At the same time, however, other surveys were not showing any sudden spike in New People’s popularity, and smart voting organizers insisted that voting for the party was not a particularly good strategy.
Thus, New People’s entry into the Duma hit at smart voting from two sides and helped discredit the strategy for any future elections. On the one hand, it now serves as a constant reminder that Navalny’s team misjudged the situation in the fall of 2021 and failed to include New People, which is now a parliamentary party, in its recommendations. On the other hand, the authorities can insist that New People has won thanks to its own campaign, despite the Navalny team’s campaigning, thereby illustrating the propagandist idea that smart voting recommendations have no real impact on anything.
Why does Putin even need a multiparty system? Putin may be attempting to recreate the East German political system, which he saw at close range during his service in Dresden. Unlike the USSR, East Germany officially had a multiparty system, and several parties in parliament, though, in practice, it was a totalitarian regime supported by a colossal repressive apparatus. This system may appear much more effective to Putin than the straightforward Soviet model of a one-party system, which looked the most unappealing to Western observers.
Introducing New People—a hastily-formed party without any coherent ideology or electorate—into the Duma may mark the beginning of a reset of Russia’s entire party system, in which the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, both holdovers Putin inherited from the previous political cycle, are removed from the game; and United Russia attempts to partner with several artificially-created parties devoid of any ideology or electorate, but with just enough votes to get into the Duma with a boost from manipulation and fraud. The West should not recognize this as competitive elections, as multiparty Duma serves as a window dressing for Putin’s dictatorship, underpinned by his all-powerful, uncontrolled security apparatus.