by Mary Dejevsky
Thursday, 25
February 2021
Explainer
07:15

How much real opposition is there left in Russia?

The emergence of a new party has divided opinion
by Mary Dejevsky
MAXIM ZMEYEV/AFP via Getty Images

It may not have registered yet in the wider world, but Russia has entered an election year. Whatever the other distractions — which include a pandemic and constitutional changes that in theory allow Vladimir Putin to go on and on — this event will bring with it an upsurge in political activity, both fair and foul. The difficulty is that it is not always easy to distinguish one from the other.

It should be stressed that the elections, to be held in September, are not directly for power in the Kremlin; Putin’s current term has three more years to run. They are for the Duma or national Parliament. The novelty — which may also reflect wishful thinking in some quarters — is a suggestion that the pro-Putin United Russia party could lose its overall majority, potentially changing the complexion of Russian politics.

The recent sentencing of the prominent opposition figure, Alexei Navalny, to a prison term that will last safely past the autumn, can be seen as an early Kremlin precaution. But another might be the sudden flurry of attention, in Russia and abroad, around a year-old political party, called ‘New People’ (Novye Lyudi, in Russian).

Founded by a perfume and marketing magnate, and headed by an entrepreneur from an intelligentsia background — his father is an eminent academic chemist — New People has positioned itself on the centre-Right. In doing so, they hope to appeal to the post-Soviet generation (the 18-30 years olds) who might be dissatisfied with the status quo. Among its campaign pitches are term limits for all elected officials, an end to privileges such as blue lights for dignitaries — a longstanding popular grievance since Soviet times — and the exposure of corruption, especially at a local level.

New People had no difficulty registering as a party when it applied last year, and it put up candidates for local council elections last autumn — with some modest success. It now has a funding base that is second only to United Russia. Their rapid progress, along with the uncanny familiarity of its platform, has raised questions. How far might New People represent a really new force, and how far might it be a Kremlin-proxy designed to draw Navalny supporters back into the mainstream?

To some, New People amounts to Navalny — not just without Navalny himself, but without the strident anti-Putin pitch, too. It might be seen as a party for those drawn to his policies, but who would rather not go out on the streets and get arrested. As such, it could be seen as a ploy by the Kremlin to divide and co-opt elements of the opposition. The creation of such proxies with a view to preserving the majority of the pro-Kremlin party is a time-honoured tactic that pre-dates Putin. On the other hand, it could be said that New People, like Navalny, has simply tapped into the genuine concerns of ordinary Russians, who lack his appetite for disruption and risk. So far, the jury is out.

What the path of New People serves to illustrate, however, is how difficult it has been — not just for Russia, but for many other post-communist states — to develop a real multi-party system. There are perhaps only two national parties in Russia today that are worthy of the name: one is the perversely named far-Right Liberal Democrat Party; the other is the Communist Party — and both predate the Soviet collapse. United Russia is little more than a vehicle for the Kremlin. Then again, how far mature political parties are essential to democracy might be moot: France and Italy also have great party fluidity, but few would challenge their democratic credentials.

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  • I appreciate this article because it provides some insight into otherwise opaque Russian politics. It does, however, seem to be at least partially based on an assumption that might no longer be as valid as it once was: that democracy is a goal Russia, and, by implication, all non-democratic countries, should aim for.
    It seems heretical to suggest otherwise, doesn’t it? But look at the state of the world’s two leading democracies, the US and the UK. They are tearing themselves apart because they appear to have lost all sense of national identity and common purpose. Patriotism and pride in your country have become unacceptable, at least among the self-regarding elites. Inequality continues to grow. I’m sure we all understand the problems besetting established democratic countries in our current age.
    Should we really be encouraging other countries to adopt democratic principles and political structures? For the first time in my life that is, at least for me, an open question.

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