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Boris Nemtsov's old party is about to lose its last seat in Russian politics

Meduza
“Parnas” chairman Mikhail Kasyanov, July 2016
“Parnas” chairman Mikhail Kasyanov, July 2016
Artem Korotaev / TASS / Scanpix / LETA

“Parnas” owes its existence to a decision by the European Court of Human Rights

“Parnas” (the People's Freedom Party) was built on the foundation of one of Russia’s oldest liberal political parties: the Republican Party of Russia. In the 1990s, RPR had seats in the State Duma, but in 2007 it lost its registration, not long after lawmakers imposed a minimum membership threshold on political parties that RPR couldn’t reach.

Four years later, however, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that RPR had been liquidated illegally, and in 2012 the Russian Supreme Court reinstated the party’s registration, leading to the formation of “RPR-Parnas.” The new entity’s two co-chairs were longtime RPR leader Vladimir Ryzhkov and the former top government officials Mikhail Kasyanov and Boris Nemtsov.

In 2013, Parnas helped Navalny run for mayor of Moscow, and it was through this party that Boris Nemtsov won a seat in the Yaroslavl regional parliament

In the early 2010s, the leaders and activists behind Parnas were constantly involved in the Moscow protest movement. In the spring of 2013, Parnas used its status as an officially registered political party to nominate Alexey Navalny for a spot on the ballot in the Moscow mayoral election, obviating the need to collect 73,000 signatures endorsing his candidacy as an independent. Navalny went on to win 27 percent of the vote in the first round, nearly forcing a runoff election against the incumbent, Sergey Sobyanin.

In the fall of 2013, Boris Nemtsov staged an equally major campaign in Yaroslavl, where he managed to win a seat on the regional parliament. Nemtsov’s victory made Parnas the country’s only “non-systemic” opposition party legally empowered to nominate State Duma candidates without collecting public signatures.

The party was plagued by infighting that only got worse after Boris Nemtsov’s assassination

In February 2014, Vladimir Ryzhkov left the party, accusing Nemtsov and Kasyanov of trying to remove him from the leadership. He took many of his supporters with him, including economist Sergey Aleksashenko and Valentina Melnikova, the chairperson of Russia’s Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers.

A year later, Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed in downtown Moscow, robbing the party of its most influential and talented mediator. Afterwards, the situation at Parnas (which dropped “RPR” from its name after Ryzhkov departed) only got worse. Next, Ilya Yashin (one of Nemtsov’s longtime associates) briefly joined the party as a co-chairman.

Campaigning for seats in the next State Duma was a disaster, with a nationalist populist winning the party’s primaries

Ahead of Russia’s 2016 parliamentary elections, the party’s co-chairmen argued bitterly and publicly. Yashin lobbied for full-fledged closed primaries, but Kasyanov would only consent if his name still appeared first on the party’s national ticket, whatever the primary’s results. Rejecting this idea, Yashin and several of his supporters left the party.

Parnas nevertheless held primaries, and victory went unexpectedly to a nationalist populist in Saratov named Vyacheslav Maltsev, prompting yet another exodus of party members. In Russia’s September 2016 elections, Parnas won 0.73 percent of the vote. It fielded candidates in 112 single-mandate races and lost every one. By November 2017, Maltsev was out of Parnas and calling on his supporters to occupy the streets until the overthrow of Vladimir Putin. The “revolution” ended in debacle, with Maltsev fleeing to Europe and many of his fans landing behind bars.

Parnas hasn’t won a single election at any level anywhere in Russia since 2013

In August 2018, the Yaroslavl branch of Parnas tried to register candidates for regional parliamentary elections on September 9. The rival groups LDPR and “Patriots of Russia” then challenged the Parnas party ticket in court, claiming that its candidates list violated certain regulations.

On August 28, the Yaroslavl Regional Court removed Parnas from the elections. The party appealed the verdict, but on September 7 Russia’s Supreme Court upheld the decision, meaning that Parnas is now definitively out of the race. Later this month, as soon as the mandate won by Boris Nemtsov expires, Parnas will need to collect signatures like any other opposition group, if it wishes to field candidates for public office at any level.

Story by Andrey Kozenko, translation by Kevin Rothrock