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Russia in Search of an Opposition: the Dilemma of Zyuganov


Marching through the streets and squares of Russia in ritual May Day demonstrations, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) is again becoming part of everyday life. Losing its hold over the committees in the State Duma, the party was outraged and humiliated by the “centrists” at the instigation of the president. Most analysts immediately declared that along with the committees, the party was also losing the lobbying influence that is indispensable for obtaining money.

In Russia, no-one gives money simply for politics; it is necessary to attend to specific requests. Initially, I was also of this opinion. But my mind was put to rest when I learned that Anton Surikov, the former head of the Industry Committee apparatus, had headed off to Africa to hunt elephants after leaving his post. Unemployed people do not behave like this if they are impoverished.

The opportunities for lobbying enjoyed by the KPRF were not especially great even before they lost control of the committees. The present Duma is totally unlike its predecessor. It decides little. This is irrespective of the fact that Russian politicians and their associates, following the behest of Ostap Bender, have already worked out several hundred relatively honest ways of extracting money from sponsors, whatever the changes to their real influence and abilities.

Overall, as will be explained, money is not the vital thing. The overturn that has taken place in the Duma is confronting Zyuganov’s party with a far more acute problem. The KPRF leadership declares that it is switching over to militant opposition. But the party was considered to be in opposition even before. The communist chief understands that he is simply compelled to do something. Somehow, he has to express disagreement with the situation that has arisen, to show the Kremlin that his party is ready for a fight. But a fight with whom, and over what?

Even before the May holidays, the KPRF leaders had thought up what seemed to them to be a brilliant move. The new course was announced at a plenum last Saturday. Zyuganov and his supporters would call on the government to resign.

The Heroism of a Bureaucrat

Where is the wisdom in this decision? In the corridors of power everyone knows that as the expression has it, a black cat has run between President Putin and Prime Minister Kasyanov. When Kasyanov was named to head the government, it was with the obvious intention that he would be replaced at the first opportunity by someone from Putin’s St Petersburg team.

But here is the problem: in two years, the “Northern Alliance” has failed to find a single politician in its ranks who might be entrusted with the country’s second most powerful job. The President can tolerate next to him only an absolute nonentity, since it is only against this background that he can stand out. Among the anonymous functionaries and disciplined employees there is no-one who might be entrusted with any independent role without the certainty of immediate disaster. Hence the need to put up with Kasyanov.

The prime minister in turn has begun to feel at home in the White House, just like Viktor Chernomyrdin, who also arrived there as a temporary figure, and stayed for more than six years. Like any successful Russian bureaucrat, Kasyanov has surrounded himself with his own people, who are gradually forcing out those who entered the government under the patronage of the Kremlin.

The situation has reached grotesque proportions; German Gref, who is close to the Kremlin, is responsible for economic reforms, while his main critic Mikhail Delyagin is the prime minister’s adviser on the same matters! Meanwhile, the government’s demonstrative unwillingness to revise its economic growth forecast to reflect better on the president is something unprecedented in Russian history.

Stalin had people shot for such things, and the rulers who followed him did not encounter such problems, since the lesson which Stalin had taught remained effective for several generations, retaining its force into the post-Soviet epoch. Against this background, the refusal by the prime minister to revise the figures can only be characterised as an act of bureaucratic heroism.

We can now make an assessment of the delicacy displayed by Zyuganov in courtly matters. The communist leader is anxious to let Putin know of his dissatisfaction, but as a concrete measure, he offers the president his services in an apparatus intrigue against the prime minister. “Opposition” of this kind is tantamount to a declaration of unfailing devotion.

Meanwhile Zyuganov, out of bureaucratic habit, is running a little ahead of the locomotive. His good offices will of course be taken into account, but will hardly be accepted.

Kasyanov’s government has been accompanied by rumours of its impending resignation literally from the day it was appointed, but the present situation could nevertheless endure for months. In any case, if Putin is to be rid of the prime minister, a pretext will be needed for sacking him, and a replacement will be required. For the moment there is neither.

Zyuganov will not be of any help to the president here. More than likely, Zyuganov’s demarche will be viewed in the Kremlin as a sign of weakness, and the efforts to apply pressure to the KPRF will increase.

There are two methods here: flirting with the governors, and rigging elections.

The “red” governors have long since been given to understand that their colour will be forgotten if they prove that they will place the president above their own party. Meanwhile, the regional communist leaders who are anxious to enter provincial assemblies and become provincial chiefs will simply not be allowed to prevail.

The main strength that the KPRF retains following its rout in the Duma is its ability to win regional elections, and following this, to dispense jobs and funds in the “red” provinces. If the party loses this ability, it will lose the support of numerous middle-ranking provincial business entrepreneurs, and will cease to be attractive to budding careerists. It is precisely on these two types of people that Zyuganov’s whole political approach rests.

Even without this, the main groups that comprise the KPRF are not finding life especially peaceful. The party includes antisemites from the Leningrad organisation, the radical leader of the Moscow communists Aleksandr Kuvaev, the cautious social-democrat Yury Maslyukov, and the Duma speaker, the mighty Gennady Seleznev. With each day that passes, these people have fewer reasons to stay within a single party.

Whatever might be happening with the KPRF, Zyuganov’s supporters console themselves with the fact that their organisation remains the only “serious” opposition party. Over almost a decade, attempts to establish an alternative to the Zyuganov structures have invariably failed, whether coming from the left or the right.

There is, however, a strange coincidence: throughout these years attempts to establish an alternative to the “anti-popular regime” have also invariably failed. This coincidence is no accident.

Nevertheless, the times are changing. There are new people in the Kremlin, people who pay little heed to the services rendered by Zyuganov’s party in the preserving of the “anti-popular regime”. In politics, and especially in Russian politics, the concept of gratitude is quite unknown. This is why the KPRF has been subjected in the Duma to public insults inconceivable in the time of Yeltsin.

Society is changing as well. Parties that are incapable of reacting to the changes that are taking place sooner or later lose their positions, however powerful their apparatuses. If the political decline of the KPRF becomes obvious, each of the groupings that make the party up will simply go its own way.

But if the people in the Kremlin think this will be the end of the communist movement in Russia, they are mistaken. Substantial numbers of the people who now vote for the KPRF will as before consider themselves communists. With Zyuganov, or without him.

Nationalist Schizophrenia

Adding to the crisis of the KPRF is the decay of nationalist ideology. For some time the “patriots” in Russia have been of two sorts: pro-presidential, and anti-presidential. The former are profoundly convinced that Putin is their person, and always was. Firm believers in conspiracy theories, they have turned these theories to their own advantage.

If, as these people are thoroughly convinced, the defeat in the Cold War, the destruction of Soviet Russia and all the country’s subsequent misfortunes resulted from the activity of clandestine agents of the Israeli and American security forces who under various pretexts made their way into the very highest positions within the state, why cannot the reverse occur as well?

President Putin, as a clandestine agent, has penetrated to the highest office of the “antipopular regime”, and now after three years still controls it, preparing at a certain “X-Hour” to transform this regime into a genuinely popular and patriotic one. This hope can last indefinitely, since no-one knows precisely when the “X-Hour” might come. The hope is impossible to shake, since any act by Putin that contradicts such expectations is perceived merely as confirming his clandestine nature, and consequently, as proving that everything is going according to plan.

Another group of patriots are more rational. At first, they too believed the fable of a clandestine co-thinker, and hoped for some kind of radical actions from the new president. But day followed on day, month on month and year on year, and the actions did not occur. The patriots started to lose patience and grow indignant. Finally, when their patience broke, they began to regard the president as a traitor, which of course he is not, since he has never been “their person”.

The confusion in the minds of the patriots is augmented by a similar muddle in the consciousness of the liberals. The fact that the current president had worked in the state security organs was enough to cause many liberals to panic and anticipate a “return to totalitarianism”. These fears turned into real hysteria when Putin came into conflict with the media magnates Gusinsky and Berezovsky, who had declared themselves to be defenders of the freedom of expresssion.

However one regards the current president, he is not a totalitarian dictator, any more than Berezovsky is a fighter for democracy. The hysteria of the liberals, however, sharpened the paranoia of the patriots. Ultimately, the fears of the liberals could be presented as indirect proof of the version according to which a clandestine agent of the national cause was ensconced in the Kremlin.

The image of Putin as an evil dictator, almost a fascist, was contrived at the instigation of Berezovsky. But it coincides in paradoxical fashion with the ideal image of the great national leader that figures in the imaginations of “nationally-oriented” ideologues. A considerable number of Putin’s admirers fell in love with him at first sight precisely because they mistakenly suspected he was some kind of Russian fascist. This hope, however, proved quite unfounded.

There is nothing more malevolent than love scorned. The disappointed patriots are now voicing their outrage more and more openly. The liberals, by contrast, seem perplexed. They, of course, fully approve Putin’s pro-American foreign policy, just as they approve any economic measures that promise to make the poor poorer and the rich richer. But this program, which seems to them so wonderful in all respects, is being implemented by someone whom this same liberal public has consigned to the category of an irredeemable villain.

Yeltsin got away with endless electoral machinations and violations of human rights simply because he had been declared to be a “democrat” by definition. Proof of the former president’s “democratism” was furnished by his willingness to tolerate the existence of an opposition press and of non-state television channels that might have revealed these violations.

Yeltsin’s position, of course, was a testament not so much to democratism as to innate common sense; the combination of bureaucratic arbitrariness with press freedom created an absolutely schizophrenic situation, demoralised the population, and ultimately worked to the advantage of the authorities, visibly demonstrating their strength and impunity.

Putin, unlike Yeltsin, has now won a reputation as a persecutor of the free press, and it is therefore not done to love him. On the emotional level, there are no steps the government might take that would change this situation. The political picture painted by the liberal commentators is hopelessly fragmented and contradictory. The schizophrenia of the democrats adds to the paranoia of the patriots.

All in all, no-one loves the president. On the other hand, why should the president need to be loved? The main thing is that people should carry out his decrees. How long they will continue doing so is, of course, another matter.

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