The 2003 Elections in Russia: Nothing New

Spring this year was a time of heated discussion in the camp of the Russian opposition. The crisis of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF) led to the emergence of “renovating” tendencies in its leadership, while also spurring hopes for the appearance of a “new opposition” that corresponded to the needs of society. These hopes were connected above all with the economist Sergey Glazyev, who had pledged to run in the elections at the head of his own list.

This list was duly compiled, under the pretentious name of “Homeland”. Anyone who had pinned their hopes Glazyev, however, was in for a profund disappointment. Glazyev was clearly playing the role of a ritual sacrifice, borne up onto the altar of “managed democracy”. He was an attractive candidate precisely because of his independence from the old nomenklatura and political clans, but he would be heading an electoral list certain to destroy his image as a person able to suggest something new.

It is a strange opposition slate that contains Dmitry Rogozin, a champion of state policies on Kaliningrad Province and on the question of nationalities, and also the leader of the Eurasia movement Aleksandr Dugin, who has repeatedly declared his “total support for Putin in spite of everything”. Their participation in the bloc will help attract the fascist vote, but will repel everyone else. This is the kind of opposition that lacks the resolve to make a single move without permission from the authorities. If the result of the Kremlin’s efforts is that the bloc fails to win electoral-list seats in the Duma, its leader will be satisfied with a seat representing a single-member electorate, and will still be grateful to the Kremlin for the help it has given him.

The formation of Glazyev’s bloc was accompanied by an unseemly squabble in the Russian Party of Labour (RPT), founded by the Astrakhan deputy Oleg Shein and the trade union leader Sergey Khramov. From the first there had been something strange about the collaboration between this politician, who won his place in the Duma with far-left slogans, and a trade union leader known for his right-wing views. What brought the party undone, however, was not disagreements of principle, but behind-the-scenes machinations around the manner in which the places on the list would be divided up.

When the RPT leaders entered Glazyev’s bloc, they explained to their bewildered party activists that it was necessary to make any compromise simply to get people into the Duma. At the Congress, however, there was talk of Duma positions being sold. Meanwhile, desperate bickering continued within Glazyev’s staff. Eventually, after the RPT leaders had expended enormous effort to forc! e a decision to join the Homeland bloc through the congress, the RPT leaders found they had been excluded from this bloc.

A second congress was immediately called; here, the RPT made a change of course, and decided to join the list of the Eurasia party. Meanwhile, Shein declared that he would remain as an independent in Glyazev’s list… in which the responsible parties had forgotten to include him. This was a natural outcome for a political grouping whose most basic principle was unprincipled behaviour.

Meanwhile, the situation inside the KPRF was no better. Out of complex compromises and intra-party brawls emerged a list in which second place went to the former Kuban governor Nikolay Kondratenko, known beyond the borders of the province solely for his anti-semitic statements. Third place was occupied by the leader of the Agrarians, Nikolay Kharitonov, equally powerless to inspire anyone. Nobel laureate Zhores Alferov turned down a place in the first three, pleading that he was too busy.

The well-known economist Mikhail Delyagin refused outright to run on the KPRF list once he had become aware of its make-up. Others who did not appear in the federal part of the list were the sole worker in the Communist fraction, Vasiliy Shandybin, and the actress Yelena Drapeko. There were, however, a certain number of new people who had earlier distinguished themselves in business. To be fair, it should be acknowledged that there were fewer candidates from business circles in the list than had been expected.

The congress was accompanied by unprecedented scandals. In the lists, the delegates found large numbers of “commercial candidates”, included as a mark of gratitude to sponsors. The most notable of them was Mr Muravlenko, never previously seen among the opposition, but familiar as one of the owners of the oil company YuKOS. The sale of deputies’ positions for money is a common practice in the Russian Duma, but this time all proprieties were abandoned.

While the Communists found that hardly any places remained for them in the lists of their own party, sponsors were complaining of being cheated, maintaining that the number of places they had received did not correspond to the money they had spent. To put it more simply, there had been a case of overbooking, as in an airliner or a hotel, when places are sold without any attempt to check whether they physically exist.

The presence of Kondratenko in second place proves decisively the failure of all the efforts by the “renovators” to change the party’s image to something more modern and left-wing. The troika of Zyuganov, Kondratenko and Kharitonov, appearing at the head of the list, symbolises the inability of the Communists to haul themselves out of the swamp of national-conservative politics.

They have clearly decided to place a large cross above the attempts to win new voters among workers dissatisfied with the authorities, and among youth and the intelligentsia. The KPRF leaders are convinced that this is how the party will retain its electorate, and hopes of increasing its representation in the Duma have evidently been put off until the future.

Nevertheless, it is becoming hard to believe that even the present state of affairs will last. National-conservative voters are gravitating more and more toward the “party of the authorities”. In these elections, the KPRF will find that its accustomed electorate is being eroded, at the same time as the party is totally incapable of attracting new people.

The number of Duma positions the Communists gain from the electoral list will not suffer much, but in territorial electorates where the outcome is sometimes decided by only one percent of votes, the party could lose a significant proportion of its seats. One should not forget the desire of the bureaucracy to ensure the victory of the centrists at any price, including the “correction” of voting figures. In sum, it is easy to foresee that the KPRF is facing a severe and humiliating defeat.

The important question is what will result from the party’s next failure. The defeat of 2003 will be a personal catastrophe for Zyuganov, and will provoke an acute leadership crisis. This is where things will become really interesting. Until now not a single party in Russia has changed its leadership, and in this respect the KPRF is just as much the property of Zyuganov as the “Yabloko” party is the organisation of Grigory Yavlinsky, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia is the personal business of Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Of course, the Communist Party has a huge membership base, as well as local organisations. Its political character, however, has been determined arbitrarily by a small group of people who have paid little heed to the interests of broad social layers, or to the ideological principles of the left.

Surveys show that people with left-wing views are the majority in Russia. However, the majority are not prepared to vote for the Communists. For all its talk of the “general popular interest”, the KPRF is nothing like the kind of force which the masses will follow, if not to the barricades, then at least to decisive political confrontations. Throughout the world, the left rests on the workers’ movement, on youth, and on national minorities. It is these three groups that played the decisive role in all the social conflicts of the last century.

But these three categories of voters are precisely the people with whom the KPRF is not forging links. It may be that the renovating tendencies within the party will again make their presence felt after the elections. Until now, the slogan of “renewal” has signified the usual kind of compromise. What Russian reality demands of an opposition, however, is not moderation but radicalism.

The opposition bears a large share of the blame for the situation in which Russia finds itself. The KPRF congress provided no particular grounds for optimism. Paradoxically, however, the present crisis of the opposition is more of a stimulus to change, than proof that change is impossible.

The bankruptcy of the present opposition leadership is obvious not just to left-wing intellectuals and activists, but also to considerable sections of the population. Moreover, the situation is becoming intolerable even for the opposition’s political party apparatus, whose members are finding themselves in the unaccustomed role of supporters of change. For the apparatus, after all, the erosion of mass support is reflected in the loss of jobs and of the funds needed for survival.

In sum, the next victory for the Kremlin’s political fixers threatens to prove Pyrrhic. The opposition has no other road left except that of reconstructing itself. These changes are long overdue, but this does not make them any less necessary.

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