Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Nemtsov Vote: Public Opinion and Pro-Western Liberalism's Decline in Russia

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

The Nemtsov Vote: Public Opinion and Pro-Western Liberalism's Decline in Russia

Article excerpt

Abstract: The political trajectory of Boris Nemtsov reflects that of unabashed pro-Western liberalism more generally in Russia, going from a strong political force in the 1990s to nearly complete political marginalization in 2015, the year of his death. An analysis of voting patterns in 2003, the only year Nemtsov personally led a political force on the ballot for a nationwide office, reveals that while many people supported core ideas advocated by Nemtsov, such as market reform, these did not systematically win him votes. Instead, these issues were successfully co-opted by Putin, backed by the Kremlin machine and state-controlled media. Nemtsov did successfully appeal to several constituencies that the Kremlin did not fully co-opt, including people who benefited from the 1990s reforms and advocates of "Western" democracy, but these were only small minorities of the population. While he had some success in Russia's biggest cities and among youth, this analysis finds no evidence he was disproportionately supported by the business community or pro-oligarch voters.

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With Boris Nemtsov's untimely and violent death in 2015, scholars were reminded of just how powerfully pro-Western liberal opposition has been marginalized in Russia during the era of Vladimir Putin. (2) Often seen in the mid-1990s as a leading young voice for democracy, market reforms, and a Europe-leaning foreign policy who might one day challenge for the presidency, Nemtsov by the 2010s was widely regarded as a spent political force, out of step with Russian reality. Indeed, back in 1997 he held the post of first deputy prime minister and could boast 22 percent support for president, bested only by Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's 24 percent. (3) But fifteen years later, his ratings in the race for Russia's top job were near zero and another poll found that 46 percent of the population considered him a man "whose time has passed," with only 11 percent still thinking his "time is yet to come." Over a fifth of the population did not even recognize his name in 2012. (4)

To whom did Nemtsov's brand of pro-Western liberalism appeal during the Putin era? The answer is not merely of academic interest as we remember Nemtsov in this special journal issue marking the first anniversary of his passing. It also has implications for how we understand the Putin era in Russia more generally. Indeed, while some scholars have argued that Western-oriented liberalism lacked a base in Russian public opinion, (5) surveys have consistently documented strong support for many important liberal ideas--including core principles of democracy and a market economy that would appear quite in line with what Nemtsov advocated--during the same period liberal parties have struggled. (6) Key to pro-Western liberals' political marginalization, then, is the question of why they were unable to mobilize votes among people who, surveys suggest, generally supported many of their ideas. While an obvious answer is Putin's repressive apparatus, (7) liberals' marginalization occurred well before this apparatus had come full flower; repression is thus a better explanation for why liberalism has not come back than for why it became marginal in the first place. To explain the political demise of pro-Western liberal forces in Russia, therefore, it becomes important not only to identify which views they shared with the electorate, but to identify which of the appeals they made were able to win them votes in the face of competition (including pressure from the Kremlin) and which were not.

Accordingly, the following pages examine patterns in Nemtsov's electorate during the only episode in which he actually appeared on the ballot for a nationwide office as the top leader of a political force, in 2003, prior to the maturing of Putin's political machine. It finds that among the constituencies to which Nemtsov appealed, he was able to win votes disproportionately from youth, residents of Russia's very largest cities, ethnic minorities, and proponents of Western democracy. …

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