Russia’s Elizabeth Warren?

On January 21st Russian Duma Deputy Oksana Dmitriyeva went on broadcast television and argued that “in a time of [economic] crisis, there should be a change of teams in government. These people don’t know how and don’t want to change course.”

She may well be the only deputy of the Russian State Duma with a functioning brain, and lately she hasn’t shied away from saying as much.

Dmitriyeva has consistently taken a stand against the government’s austerity, be it in the form of cuts to higher education and healthcare, or “pension reforms” that left seniors even more impoverished than they were before. In proposing her own “anti-crisis” bill to lift the wilting economy, she declared that the cause of the country’s economic trouble was “not the price of oil but the incompetence and greed of the government.”

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Tough talk of this nature has landed Dmitriyeva into hot water with her political party, “A Just Russia,” where she served as national Vice Chairperson. That is, until a decision emanating from its Moscow headquarters last Tuesday put an end to her tenure as Chairperson of the St. Petersburg branch of the party, ostensibly over misuse of funds and declining numbers of registered party members. Having openly criticized the government – on television no less, where most Russians get their news – is a more likely explanation for her removal.

Dmitriyeva is part of a shrinking circle of opposition-minded politicians who escaped the turbulent Russian 1990’s both unscathed and untarnished. First elected to the Duma as a member of the Yabloko party in 1993, she served on the committee for budget, taxes, banks and finance. She was reelected once in 1995 and in 1998 served as Minister of Labor and Welfare Development under Prime Minister Sergey Kiriyenko (and Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov) for four months before her resignation, after which she became a professor at the St. Petersburg State University of Economics and Finance.

Taking the ministry post in the Kiriyenko government got her kicked out of Yabloko, which apparently considered her acceptance to have been a mistake. But this appears to be the way Dmitriyeva prefers to operate: pushing from within the system for better policies. As Minister, she argued for increases to the minimum monthly wage and attacked the way the government handled pension money, calling for the Pension Fund to be audited.

Dmitriyeva would later bounce from party to party, getting reelected to the Duma each time, until finally joining A Just Russia at its formation in 2006. Back then, A Just Russia was theoretically intended to become the center-left wing of a hypothetical two-party system that would make it the counterpart to Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s United Russia party. That idea never came into fruition and A Just Russia is now widely regarded as a spoiler party to siphon off the elderly vote from the Communist Party. But considering the onerous requirements for parties to participate in federal elections in Russia, being a part of A Just Russia made sense for Dmitriyeva.

Until now.

After finding out she was getting kicked out of her position as regional chair, Dmitriyeva made overtures to the effect that she would resign herself, tweeting as much Saturday evening. Moreover, she has now spoken to a number of mainstream publications about her intention to form a new coalition party comprised of opposition forces, declaring: “I am ready to spearhead this new structure, but believe it will have several leaders.” Ultimately, their goal will be to participate in the 2016 parliamentary elections, which may actually see some serious contention as Russia’s economic crisis unfolds.

If anyone could make those elections competitive, Dmitriyeva could. When she attempted to run for governor of Leningrad Region last year she polled second at 16% to the incumbent’s 39%. That was before her run was blocked by the local legislature, 156 (!) of whose deputies must approve of any candidate. With 35% of voters undecided, it could have been a real race.

Once the dust had settled and the incumbent, Grigory Poltavchenko, cruised to reelection, she stood in front of her colleagues in the Duma and called out the obvious falsification of the results. If Putin had won up to 60% of the vote cleanly in his last election in Saint Petersburg, there was no way that the much less popular Poltavchenko had actually won the reported 86% of the vote he received there, she reasoned.

If Oksana Dmitriyeva had an American counterpart, it’s not hard to conclude that it would be Elizabeth Warren. Both are widely-cited authorities on economics in their respective countries. Both have a record as pragmatic advocates for the working and middle classes. And both have been searingly critical of their respective central banks! We haven’t quite heard Elizabeth Warren agitating for “mass political parties” as Dmitriyeva has yet, but she could still come around.

We’ll be keeping our eyes on this one.


James Neimeister is a freelance writer from Ohio. His interests include: Russia, Ukraine, education, technology, and "cyberspace."

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