President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he does not tolerate dissent, but a new opposition party has flourished.
And this party, oddly enough, spoke out on the same anti-corruption and repression themes that made opposition leader Alexei Navalny the No. 1 enemy of the Kremlin, with the government on the verge of collapse. ‘ship to a penal colony.
The new party is thriving even as Navalny’s own party has been banned. The reasons, according to Russian analysts, are to undermine Navalny, distract from his movement and divide the liberal opposition – while providing a veneer of multi-party politics in a country where there are few meaningful electoral choices.
The new party, called New People, seems designed to appeal to Navalny supporters.
“For two decades, we have lived in a situation of false choices: either freedom or order,” proclaims its platform. The government, he said, “should stop seeing enemies and traitors in those with other views.”
The Kremlin has worked on many fronts to destroy Navalny’s movement – arresting his supporters during protests and, according to the Navalny and Western governments, trying to assassinate him last year. Government officials hailed him as a puppet of Western intelligence agencies, and government-backed flashmobs have emerged in support of Putin.
But Navalny has also been faced with a steady stream of competing anti-corruption reformers who seem to operate with the blessing of the government – most recently New People, which has stepped up its campaign for the parliamentary elections in September, when Navalny will be in a penal colony.
The founder of a cosmetics company, Alexei Nechayev, created the party last year to channel what he described as a sense of opposition in society, just as Navalny did. But Nechayev refrains from directly criticizing Putin and does not call for his ousting.
Navalny and his allies greeted the arrival of New People with disdain, identifying Nechayev as the latest in a long line of double-handed policies the Kremlin hinted at in an attempt to oust Navalny from his leadership of disgruntled young professionals.
“They are trying to give us the line that these New People will now be the real competition for United Russia,” Lyubov Sobol, an ally of Navalny, said of the ruling pro-Putin party in a YouTube analysis after the new man appeared. left last year.
“It’s pretty funny,” she added. “They say the right things, more or less, but obviously they will never do anything. These are just spoilers.
The Russian political system is sometimes referred to as “managed democracy”, for the practice of Kremlin political advisers who create, mentor or fund supposed opposition figures and parties – and tolerate others as long as they do not directly criticize Putin.
These parties are allowed to compete with each other, giving the people free rein, while providing the losers needed to create an illusion of choice in elections that the ruling party most often wins.
Variants of these democratic grape leaf systems exist around the world in autocratic countries. Apart from a few monarchies in the Middle East and remaining communist dictatorships like North Korea, elections, even if rigged, are the only accepted way to legitimize power today.
This gloss on Russia’s iron rule appeared in the early 2000s under the leadership of a former Putin’s domestic political adviser, Vladislav Surkov, although Surkov has since been sidelined. During the last presidential election of 2018, Ksenia Sobtchak, a socialite known to be a goddaughter of Putin, fulfilled the role of ersatz of the opposition while Navalny was banned from running.
Likewise, New People allows Russians who support Navalny’s modernization agenda to vote for a legal alternative, without the headache of arrests and repression.
Nechayev has denied consulting with the Kremlin before forming the party, which now has 72 regional offices, after adding two last week, and in fact won a handful of seats last fall in regional elections.
Still, political analysts rejected the idea that the party emerged without the Kremlin’s blessing. In Russia, “the real opposition is the unregistered parties,” Andrei Kolesnikov, political scientist at the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said in a telephone interview.
In an interview at the party’s spacious headquarters in an upscale office tower in Moscow, Nechayev listed the three conditions for registering a political party: refrain from criticizing Putin or his family, avoid foreign funding, and refrain from unauthorized street demonstrations.
“We are not violating these three red lines,” he said.
“Often, and especially in the West, Russia is presented as just Putin and Navalny,” but many Russians want moderate opposition, he said. “Most people understand that the world is not black and white.”
While useful in blunt movements like Navalny’s, led democracy has not always gone smoothly. On rare occasions, politicians have laughed at the fact that the Kremlin puppets have turned into real opposition.
Members of Just Russia, a party Surkov helped form in 2006 to fill the center-left opposition’s false niche in Russian politics, did so in 2011 with the endorsement of a previous move by street protest led by Navalny.
One of these politicians, Gennady Gudkov, has since fled Russia and speaks openly of the Kremlin’s hand in bogus opposition parties, a threat that the real opposition faces alongside police crackdowns.
On Surkov’s central role in the creation of Just Russia, “there were no secrets,” Gudkov said in a telephone interview in Bulgaria.
In a gruesome twist, a political figure believed to have appeared as a fake or managed copy of Navalny even died in what Bellingcat, the open source research organization, has documented as a probable assassination with poison.
As an anti-corruption blogger, Nikita Isayev and his group New Russia had imitated many of Navalny’s tactics, uncovering corruption among low-level officials. He was called “the New Navalny”. He refrained from criticizing Putin, however.
Isayev died suddenly at age 41 while on an overnight train ride in 2019. Among the potential motives Bellingcat identified was the intrigue of the palace. Isayev was considered to be affiliated with Surkov, so when Surkov fell out of favor, according to this theory, his Kremlin rivals managed to eliminate his fake Navalny as well.
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