Nechayev money, Kovalchuk brains Where the ‘New People’ party came from, who it serves, and how it managed to win seats in the State Duma — barely a month after lagging in the polls
“New People” is the first new party to win seats in Russia’s State Duma in years; as a result, the parliament now consists of five factions instead of the usual four. The party’s approval ratings suddenly began to rise around the end of campaign season, despite the fact that nobody with much name recognition was on the party’s ticket — with the exception of the party’s founder, businessman Alexey Nechayev, and former head of Yakutsk Sardana Avksentyeva (who’s fairly famous at the federal level). New People’s faction in parliament consists of 13 people — enough, in the words of Nechayev himself, to “shake up the State Duma.” Meduza special correspondent Andrey Pertsev reports on the new party’s origins, the role the Kovalchuk brothers play in it, and how a completely inexperienced political organization managed to outflank its opponents.
Alexey Nechayev, Russian Patriot
In December 2019, members of the presidential administration’s internal political bloc began discussing the creation of a new political party. United Russia’s approval ratings had fallen after the increase of the pension age, and the other pro-government parties’ ratings hadn’t risen to make up for it.
The Kremlin bureaucrats’ idea was simple: certain large groups of Russian voters — including urban young people, citizens concerned about the environment, patriots, Internet users, pensioners, and so on — felt there was no political party representing their interests.
“If there were someone speaking to their interests from the Duma podium, or at least a party expressing ideas they care about, social well-being would be higher and protest support would be lower. People aren’t represented politically,” said a source close to Putin’s executive office.
Political managers in the Kremlin decided that the solution would be to create new parties that would express specific and easy-to-grasp ideas; they’d be patriotic, ecological, and moderately liberal. It was assumed that these parties would be funded by the businessmen close to the Kremlin — “as a form of charity.”
This kind of party creation isn’t new. In 2011, the presidential executive office turned to billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov for a new right-liberal political project in the lead-up to the 2011 legislative election. Prokhorov’s approach was to rebrand the Right Cause (“Prayove Delo”) party. Afterward, however, when some well-known opposition figures were invited to join the party, the Kremlin wasn’t happy. At the electoral convention, Prokhorov referred to the move as a “hostile takeover” of Right Cause and called Putin’s former chief of staff Vladislav Surkov a “puppeteer” before announcing he was leaving the party. In 2016, business ombudsman Boris Titov began to build a new party to replace Right Cause, changing the name to The Party of Growth.
The first new party structure to be organized for the 2021 Duma elections was writer Zachar Prilepin’s far-right For Truth party. It was financed by entities close to senator Alexander Babakov (who was once considered one of the main “wallets” behind the party “A Just Russia” and was one of its leaders).
Around the same time, members of the presidential administration were discussing the idea of forming yet another new party. The idea was to create something that would appeal to liberal-leaning voters while still being led by people close to Vladimir Putin, brothers Mikhail and Yury Kovalchuk. That’s how the New People party was born.
Unlike For Truth, which Prilepin thought up himself and proposed to the Kremlin, New People didn’t initially have a clear leader — or even a group of famous figures who could form the party’s core. Kremlin strategists came up with a list of possible personnel to make up the party: namely, musician and RTVi general producer Sergey Shnurov, who was eager to try his hand in politics (and later ended up in the Party of Growth). Putin’s executive office also considered journalist Yury Dud — but, according to Meduza’s source, the new party’s strategists didn’t even manage to reach out to him before security officers advised them not to.
Eventually, businessman Alexey Nechayev, founder of the company Faberlic, expressed interest in the role. According to a source close to the presidential administration, Nechayev had already been in talks with another, already active political project — the Rodina party. That party’s more patriot views were “basically closer to the businessman’s own views,” said the source. “Nechayev has the worldview of a statesman, a patriot of Russia.”
“He was considering two options: he could form his own party or he could go with us as the number two guy in the party — or even number one, we wouldn’t have minded,” said a source close to Rodina’s leadership who confirmed that the negotiations with Nechayev took place.
According to the source, Nechayev held out hope of joining Rodina even after he agreed to help create New People. Meduza’s source noted, in particular, that at the new party’s founding convention, which took place behind closed doors in March of 2020, Nechayev wasn’t the party’s chairman; instead, it was the director of Faberlic’s Network Development department, Irena Lukiyanova.
It was only in August 2020 that Nechayev was appointed New People’s official leader. “He said he had been given a great mission: to create a liberal party for urban voters. But Nechayev didn’t become the chairman until something else became clear: New People would receive parliamentary privilege and would make it into [at least] one legislative assembly no matter what. At that point, all negotiations with Rodina finally came to an end,” recalled Meduza’s source from Rodina.
A source from the presidential administration insists that Nechayev himself approached businessman and Putin ally Yury Kovalchuk and offered to sponsor and organize the party formation process. “He seemed to Kovalchuk to be a ‘sterile’ businessman, and they got to work,” said the source. At the time of publication, Yury Kovalchuk had not responded to Meduza’s questions about these claims.
Ultimately, it was Vladislav Davankov, the nephew of Nechaev’s friend and Faberlic co-founder Alexander Davankov, who managed to bring together Nechayev, the Kovalchuks, and the head of the presidential executive office’s internal political bloc. Vladislav Davankov served as deputy director of the autonomous nonprofit organization “Russia is a Country of Opportunities”; Putin’s first deputy chief of staff Sergey Kiriyenko serves on the organization’s board.
A person familiar with the negotiations between Nechayev and the Kovalchuks, the Kremlin, and Rodina conceded that Nechayev acted pragmatically: “If a new party was created, then good. If not, he’d join Rodina.” He succinctly characterized New People as being created “with Nechayev’s money, under the Kovalchuks’ leadership.” A source from the presidential administration agreed.
Nechayev’s declined to speak with Meduza for this story, but Meduza did ask him several questions at a press conference. He responded to a question about his connections to the authorities as follows: “Not many people have referred to us as a pro-Kremlin project. Three million people voted for the party. Either they want us to be a pro-Kremlin project and they voted for us, which would be very strange in your worldview, or they don’t consider us to be pro-Kremlin. Outside of your publication, very few people [consider New People a pro-Kremlin project]. You’ve written over and over again that we’re a pro-Kremlin project, but where are you getting that from? Right now, you’re not acting as journalists, but as propagandists.”
“Yury Kovalchuk has no relationship whatsoever to the party’s work,” he added.
How ‘New People’ took the regions
After becoming the party’s official leader, Nechayev sought help from some more experienced political operatives; strategists Yefim Ostrovsky (a member of the Methodological Movement), Alexey Chadayev, Konstantin Mitchin, and Sergey Malakhov became his main consultants. Nechayev’s business partner Alexander Davankov was in charge of managing day-to-day operations.
Besides Nechayev and Davankov, no well-known figures joined the party; the party’s aforementioned founding convention included neither celebrities nor famous politicians. A source close to the party’s leadership said that Nechayev wanted it that way, and the Kremlin supported the decision.
Overall, the party was represented by Faberlic employees and graduates of Alexey Nechayev’s “Captains of Russia” program — young people with volunteer and business experience. “Nechayev filled the party’s [official] positions with people he personally trusted, people he had personally mentored,” said a source from New People.
Each of Russia’s new political parties — For Truth, the Direct Democracy Party, Green Alternative, and New People — needed to prove its viability to the Kremlin before the State Duma elections by winning seats in at least one regional legislative assembly. Local authorities were instructed to greenlight these parties’ registration in any district where they wanted to run.
At the same time, every party would have its own “favored region.” For Prilepin, this was Ryazan Region; for Green Alternative, it was the Komi Republic and Chelyabinsk Region; and for the Direct Democracy Party, it was Voronezh Region.
The regional authorities were supposed to help facilitate the new parties’ entrance into the regional parliaments, but not all of them helped. For Truth and Green Alternative obtained parliamentary privilege in 2020, but the Direct Democracy Party didn’t make it into the Voronezh legislative assembly. It’s possible that this is the reason the party’s leader, World of Tanks product manager Vyacheslav Makarov, left the party in late 2020 (although the Direct Democracy Party still managed to win seats in the Jewish Autonomous Region’s legislative assembly in the September elections).
Officials had trouble deciding on a “favored region” for Nechayev’s party. “There was talk of the Belgorod, Kaluga, and Novosibirsk regions, but then the whole discussion stopped for some reason,” said a source who worked for the party.
At that time, Belgorod Region was led by “heavyweight” governor Evgeny Savchenko; the region’s electoral system was under his complete control. New People’s leaders and officials in Belgorod, however, weren’t able to come to an agreement, and their negotiations ultimately led to direct conflict: Belgorod officials opposed the party’s registration in the election, but Nechayev’s people decided to run a campaign there anyway.
“Billboards saying ’New People’ began to appear around the region. For Savchenko, who had led the region for more than 30 years, this was like showing a red rag to a bull. They started exerting direct pressure on the party’s outpost,” said a source from New People. In the summer of 2020, unable to collect enough signatures to register, the party effectively left Belgorod.
Left without a guaranteed region to use as a base, New People focused their efforts on Novosibirsk, Kaluga, Kostroma, and Ryazan regions, as well as the Tomsk City Duma. They essentially used the same tactics in all of the territories, buying up all of the available advertising space both on the streets and in local media. The party’s political strategists also worked with local mobilization groups to get voters to the polls.
The plan turned out to be effective enough: New People entered the legislative bodies of all of the regions where they actively campaigned. In the Kostroma Regional Duma election, they received 7.46 percent of the vote; in Kaluga, 8.08 percent; in Ryazan, 5.72 percent; and in Novosibirsk, 7.19 percent.
A source from within the party insisted that the regional authorities played no role in helping the party receive the votes shares they needed. The 2020 Tomsk City Duma election suggests this is true: the group of party and self-nominated candidates endorsed by Team Navalny’s Smart Vote initiative won 19 out of 27 single-mandate constituencies; it can therefore reasonably be assumed that the results were authentic, or at least came close. New People received 15 percent of the party list votes and won the most votes in the constituency.
The votes Nechayev received in the 2020 Novosibirsk State Duma election seem plausible as well: the party won a decent share of the votes in the city, which was fully decked out in New People ads, and fell predictably short in the suburbs and rural areas.
Nevertheless, New People wound up with a “safety” region that provided it parliamentary privilege after all: the Kostroma Region. That much is clear from the region’s Duma elections.
A source close to the Kostroma regional authorities insists that anomalies that suggest local election results may not be trustworthy are not due to the authorities “correcting” the results to assist New People. According to him, any anomalies are due to the work of local mobilization networks the party hired in the region: “People mobilized in specific constituencies — that’s the reason.”
Newbies with no baggage
Despite the party’s success in regional elections, Alexey Nechayev tried to replace his team of political strategists.
“He saw how the party took off, how it got better results than any of this year’s other new projects, so clearly it was time to call on some higher-status political consultants. He’s also made sure to keep Ostrovsky and Chadayev around, making them into his sort of advisors. But he got rid of the people who worked for the victories on the ground. It was like he knew they were good strategists but he needed some bigger names,” recalled a source close to New People’s leadership.
For a time, that “bigger name” looked to be well-known political strategist Evgeny Minchenko. According to a source who knows Nechayev, Minchenko was recommended to him by “friends and relatives — namely, his wife.” But the two didn’t mesh; according to a source from New People, “both their personalities and their approaches were too different.”
At that point, the party was getting various contradictory orders from the Kremlin. First, they would prioritize electing the next class of Duma deputies, then they’d switch to targeting 18- to 30-year-old voters who use the Internet in an attempt to “divide the protest vote,” according to a source from the party.
Part of New People’s former team re-joined to party; in addition, Alexey Nechayev brought in another well-known political strategist, Yury Vorotnikov, who called on some of his colleagues to join the effort. The group’s next task would be to select a group of candidates to run for State Duma from districts across the country.
“We were searching for inexperienced people who didn’t have any baggage — but who had their own money and some degree of name recognition,” said a source familiar with the effort. He admitted this turned out to be difficult: most people who expressed interest in the party were either experienced politicians with money or newbies who couldn’t afford a campaign.
“There were people who had money or large businesses who were interested in financing New People campaign offices and nominating their own candidates for State Duma and regional assemblies. In the initial meetings, party representatives would put out a certain amount they would need to spend on the campaign, and later on, they would name a different, higher amount — a lot of people backed out,” said a source close to the party’s leadership.
Several local officials from around the country told Meduza that emissary-strategists from New People worked along with them, advising them on which candidates to nominate and helping resolve disputes.
In most regions, it was either Nechayev’s “captains” or little-known mid-size business owners and public figures who ran on the party’s tickets. The majority of campaign spending fell to Nechayev himself, according to a source from inside the party.
In the spring of 2021, the party finally got the famous politician Nechayev had been hoping for: Sardana Avksentyeva, the former mayor of Yakutsk, became his advisor.
In 2018, Avksentyeva’s name became famous throughout the country when she beat United Russia’s candidate in Yakutsk’s mayoral election. However, she resigned in early 2021, leaving her seat to her deputy Evgeny Grigoryev, a United Russia member. According to Meduza’s earlier reporting, her resignation was the result of Kremlin pressure. But a source from the office of the presidential plenipotentiary to the Far Eastern Federal District insisted that the subject of Avksentyeva’s resignation did not come up in her negotiations with New People.
Avksentyeva herself said the following about joining the party: “Right now, few people are devoting attention to the question of how the country’s regions will develop. The initiative to change our tax legislation is close to my heart: taxes that are collected in the regions should stay there. Alexey Nechayev has proposed giving more freedom to the regions in order to let them develop — this is all close to me, it resonates with my soul.”
New People’s federal party list consisted of two names: Alexey Nechayev and Sardana Avksentyeva. Sangadji Tarbayev, former captain of a well-known KVN (a Russian comedy and quiz show) team, became another face of the party. Television host Elena Letuchaya also came to the New People convention in July, but didn’t ultimately run as a candidate.
In a conversation about New People’s representatives in the State Duma, a source close to the presidential executive office immediately referred to the party as a “top-down project with everything that entails.” This means that the regional authorities did not have the right to oppose New People, interfere with its regional campaign offices’ work, or prevent the party from buying ads in local media. “But this doesn’t mean they helped them by mobilizing state employees to vote for them or by correcting election results in their favor,” added the source.
Several political strategists who led campaigns for United Russia in the regions confirmed this characterization.
Outside of the State Duma elections, New People submitted candidate lists for legislative assembly races in 32 regions; in 11 of them, the party was unable to register. “That’s a different situation: in those races, the regional authorities could decide themselves whether they needed New People in their lineup or not. In some places, they removed them, while in others, they helped them — in St. Petersburg, the party office worked closely with the city government, they received help,” said the same source.
The party didn’t disappoint: in Moscow, for example, where New People did fairly well, New People did very little outdoor campaigning.
According to a source familiar with the New People’s campaign work, Nechayev was “nervous for the entire course of the campaign,” despite the preferential treatment the party received from the Kremlin. “He thought everyone was tricking him: the presidential administration, the strategists. The question of whether the party would enter the State Duma tortured him,” the source said. Indeed, according to all polls up until the end of August 2021, New People shouldn’t have won any seats in the parliament. “If the party didn’t make it, what was the point? Why did he spend so much money?” the source continued “And he’d spent an enormous amount of money — on media coverage, on some kinds of apparently popular things like candidate debates. And a lot of people could smell the money. For example, director Konstantin Bogomolov became the party’s unofficial ideologue: he came up with the script for the August convention and took the videos. Can you imagine how much that costs?” said the source.
As Kommersant reported, New People’s convention, which was directed by Konstantin Bogomolov in August 2021, took the form of a “political performance” with a “philosophical subtext.” Among other things, participants talked about the “decline of civilization brought on by contemporary global elites.” The party’s electoral manifesto “was read aloud to the sound of the symphonic poem ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’.”
New People’s Duma campaign was constructed much differently than parliamentary campaigns of years past. Putting campaign ads on billboards throughout the country was considered too expensive, so New People decided to gain name recognition through television and buying ads in tabloids like Komsomolskaya Pravda.
The independent election monitoring movement Golos determined that the television networks Perviy Kanal (Channel One) and Ren TV, both of which are partially owned by the Kovalchuk brothers’ National Media Group (NMG), reported on New People more frequently than other networks.
Sardana Avksentyeva started gaining active support in Russia’s regions (Evgeny Minchenko, who previously clashed with Nechayev, became her personal consultant). In early September, VTsIOM predicted that New People would join the State Duma after all — contrary to previous polls.
New People ultimately made it into the State Duma with 5.35 percent of the vote. The party did especially well in the “protest regions” of the Far East (9.8 percent in Yakutia, 9.25 percent in Sakhalin, 7.73 percent in Khabarovsk) and Siberia (9.93 percent in Irkutsk).
“They won the whole protest vote for themselves, ensuring that the KPRF [Communist Party] didn’t take it all. Which means it wasn’t all in vain,” said a high-ranking official from a constituency in the Far East, noting that the party won a decent share of the vote even in areas where they hardly campaigned — “just because of their name.”
According to political strategist Pyotr Bystrov, in a way, voting for New People was similar to voting for Mikhail Prokhorov in the 2012 presidential election. “You might call it deja vu: the audience is basically the same — young people, it was clear from the exit polls, who want something new. Here they got something fresh.”
Now, the party is struggling to decide the makeup of its Duma faction. So far, it’s clear that Alexey Nechayev, Sardana Avksentyeva, Sangadji Tarbayev, and Roza Chemeris — the wife of a Primorsky Krai regional Duma deputy, who previously served in the Vladivostok City Duma as a United Russia representative and just withdrew her candidacy from the United Russia primaries a month ago — are on the list. Chemeris claimed that Nechayev offered to let her lead New People’s Far East branch.
According to a source close to New People’s campaign, the party’s candidate list for the State Duma was created (and submitted to the Central Electoral Commission) back when making it to the Duma wasn’t even considered a possibility — and many people ended up on the list just “for numbers.” “The party and the presidential administration came to an agreement fairly easily, and security officials didn’t nag us about it,” he said.
“The list includes so many random people — I’d go as far as to call them dumbasses,” a source from New People told Meduza. “When it comes to the Duma faction, there’s some suffering in our future.”
Translation by Sam Breazeale