Russian Communist Party in Pre-Election Crisis

“We’re putting our hopes on the vote-rigging,” a Communist Party official sighed. “How’s that?” I asked, more than a little surprised. “The [presidential] administration has told the regional authorities to keep our vote total below a certain level. But to make sure we reach that level the bureaucrats will have to give us a top-up.”

Needless to say, this grim joke doesn’t tell the whole story. The Communist Party (KPRF) may be in crisis, but it still has plenty of supporters who will vote Communist in the parliamentary elections come what may. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the party has never been in worse shape on the eve of an election.

Political parties traditionally hold a major congress at the beginning of the parliamentary campaign season, and the Communist Party is no exception. Delegates approve the platform and the party list, and the big shots take another turn in front of the television cameras.

This year the Communist’s federal party list, cobbled together after a complex series of compromises and internecine squabbles, is a sure bet to disappoint on election day. Former Krasnodar Governor Nikolai Kondratenko, known outside his home region primarily for his openly anti-Semitic views, occupies the second spot on the list. The choice of Nikolai Kharitonov, leader of the Duma’s agro-industry faction, to fill the third spot is unlikely to arouse much interest among voters.

Zhores Alfyorov, who won the Nobel Prize for physics in 2000, turned down the third spot on the list, citing previous commitments. Well-known economist Mikhail Delyagin refused a spot on the list after finding out who else would be included. The only actual worker in the Communist Party’s Duma faction, Vasily Shandybin, didn’t make the final cut, nor did actress Yelena Drapeko. A number of business types made the list, though to be fair, there were fewer than expected.

Kondratenko’s presence in the Communist Party’s top troika spells the end of reformers’ election-year efforts to recast the party as progressive, left-leaning and in step with the times. Taken as a whole the troika, headed as always by Gennady Zyuganov, is emblematic of the party’s inability to extract itself from the morass of nationalist-conservative politics.

Party leaders have called off recent attempts to lure new supporters among the working class, the intelligentsia and younger voters. In doing so, they have clearly abandoned their hopes of winning a larger share of seats in the Duma. While the leadership seems convinced that the party will hold onto its core support no matter what, it now seems unlikely that even the modest goal of maintaining the status quo is within their reach. Nationalist-conservative voters are increasingly drawn to the “party of power.” This erosion of the Communists’ core, coupled with their total inability to attract new voters, will prove disastrous in December.

Party bigwigs on the federal list are unlikely to suffer as a result, but in the single-mandate districts, where the margin of victory is often just 1 percent of the vote, the party could lose a significant number of seats in the Duma. Keep in mind that the bureaucrats have a strong incentive to ensure that the “centrists” prevail at any price, even if that means doctoring election results.

The party leadership is paralyzed by internecine squabbles and a brutal power struggle. The party’s dirty laundry has been hung out for all to see. The only message the Communists seem capable of delivering to the public is one of scandal and recrimination.

One example of KPRF’s disorientation was forum “Future of the Left” organized in November. Before the forum started there had been the largest concern about the KPRF pre-electoral plans among the participants. Many were afraid that the meeting would turn into election campaign of the party, which would be manipulating them for its own interest. The CPRF website publication has added fuel to the flame.

It stated that the invited guest Susan George is to speak at the joint press conference along with the KPRF leader Gennady Zouganov. Not only Susan George wasn’t asked for permission, such plans were unknown even to the members of the organizing committee of the conference (I was abroad at the time but it’s clear that they could have got my opinion by phone or e-mail). Two days before the forum had started the scandal burst out. Moreover, the sinister message about the “joint press-conference” was vanishing and mysteriously emerging on the webpage, – like ominous writings on the wall foretelling the fault of the event at all.

On the Internet acid-tongued but rather deserved comments appeared. However the funniest thing was that the announced press conference was such a surprise for Gennady Zouganov as for Susan George. KPRF.ru simply tried to attract media attention in such a strange way, not thinking about the political consequences at all.

And the consequences were the most devastating. Some of the forum participants, angry with the situation, warned that such a thing made them step out with much more harsh CPRF critics then they had planned initially. In the end, Susan George refused to fly to Moscow, returning the ticket just a few hours before the flight and making a public announcement about it. Zouganov didn’t appear as well. Other high-ranked party leaders (to the relief of the independent left) also ignored the Forum.

The political discussion was drawn significantly to the CPRF critics, to which representatives of the party reacted without spirit. It’s clear that the party couldn’t get any use for the election campaign from such a forum, that’s why the fears of “KPRF manipulating the left” proved to be false. Nothing of the kind the party apparatus could manage fortunately, and the “party line” mostly was “radiant with its absence”.

It’s bad enough that the anti-Communist press covers the party’s trials and tribulations with evident relish. Now the party faithful are starting to hear about them. Of late, publications friendly to the party have been more than happy to deliver the bad news. During the last party congress, they conducted a lively discussion about the sale of spots on the party list to various oligarchs.

Then last week, State Duma Deputy Leonid Mayevsky went public about the party’s ties to Boris Berezovsky. The connection to Berezovsky was old news, but Mayevsky made headlines when he told a press conference that he had personally taken part in talks between Berezovsky and Communist ideologue Alexander Kravets in London.

The leadership immediately expelled Mayevsky from the party’s Duma faction. They suddenly remembered that he wasn’t a Communist at all, just a businessman and lobbyist for various telecoms companies. Mayevsky’s personal motives were all too clear. He had not received the spot on the party list that he felt he deserved, and his relationship with the leadership had soured.

But the story didn’t end there. Mayevsky’s allegations were taken up by Anatoly Baranov, who asked on the web site Pravda.ru, “What have the heads of the party and the Duma faction been doing for the last four years?” After all, they had recently named Mayevsky the Communist candidate for governor in the Omsk region. “Our comrades in the leadership were thinking only of their wallets,” Baranov opined. “As a Communist, I have a question: Why would a party engaged in a serious struggle for power entrust its most private — I would even say secret, since party finances are always secret — affairs to God knows whom?”

Baranov is not just some rank-and-file Communist. He is a well-known journalist whom the party had just appointed editor of its official web site, Kprf.ru. Then he delivers a blistering criticism of the party leadership — and on a rival web site to boot.

Anyone who has even an inkling of the internal workings of the Communist Party — or most any other party for that matter — will realize that Baranov could not have delivered such a broadside and gone unpunished unless the leadership itself were paralyzed by internal strife.

A little over a year ago, when party leaders launched their campaign against Gennady Semigin, publications close to the party ran an article called “Operation Mole,” which had been personally approved by Gennady Zyuganov. Yet public attacks in the party press did not prevent Semigin from landing a spot on the party list. A nasty exchange followed in the press, in the course of which more names were made public. This led to a fundamental question: If the party had received money from the oligarchs, where was it? What was it spent on?

“Of course there is a suspicion that a majority of the party’s leaders have something to hide,” Baranov remarked. “If we weren’t talking about a majority, certain names would not have made it into the federal party list against the wishes of Gennady Zyuganov.”

The voters will have the final say in all this. For now the pessimists are predicting a fiasco on election day, while the optimists hold out hope that many people who have chosen to remain silent will cast their ballots for the party. This has happened before. But this year’s election is different. Traditionalists and conservatives who once voted for the Communists have defected en masse to United Russia, the party that pays their pensions, you could say. Even on the left, the Communist Party today arouses such disgust that many people will opt to stay at home or vote “against all candidates.”

All of the available evidence leads to one conclusion: The Communists are in for a drubbing on election day. The real question is what will follow. Political defeats have been a way of life for the Communists since 1996, so the loss of some single-mandate seats might not look like a tragedy. But this election defeat will be different, because if the Kremlin has its way, the party will suffer not just defeat, but humiliation. This could have unpredictable consequences for the party’s supporters and its leaders.

No political party in post-Soviet Russia has ever had a change of leadership. The Communist Party is Zyuganov’s personal fiefdom, just as Yabloko is Grigory Yavlinsky’s and the Liberal Democratic Party is Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s. The Communists retain a huge membership and an enormous network of local organizations. But the party’s image has been crafted by a small group of people who have given little thought to the ideological principles of the left or the interests of social forces. This year’s defeat will be a personal disaster for Zyuganov, and it will lead to a leadership crisis in the party.

Polls show that most Russians lean to the left politically, but the majority have no intention of voting for the Communists. For all its talk of defending the interests of the people, the Communist Party is hardly the kind of organization that people would take to the barricades to support. The left everywhere relies on the support of the workers’ movement, the young and ethnic minorities. These three groups played a decisive role in 1917, as they did in every social conflict of the 20th century. Yet these are the very groups that the Communist Party has proven unable to attract.

Reform efforts within the party may well resume after the election, though to date “reform” has meant little more than appeasement. The opposition bears a large share of the blame for the current state of affairs in Russia. The latest Communist Party congress affords little cause for optimism. At least until December.

Boris Kagarlitsky is director of the Institute of Globalization Studies.

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