Russian Communists are at a familiar crossroads

January 21, 2012

Russia’s restless electorate bestowed a big bouquet of votes on the country’s Communists last month, putting the party of Lenin in position to either rally a new generation behind its red banners or stay reliably on the sidelines, repeating the old slogans and mourning the past.

The Communist Party took 19.19 percent of the vote to come in second in the Dec. 4 parliamentary election, an unexpected windfall for the party and a surprise to the rest of the country.

Though it has offices in small towns and cities around Russia, with portraits of Stalin on the wall and hammer-and-sickle flags in the corner, ready to unfurl, its message has remained unchanged as its members have aged over the past 20 years: The glorious achievements of the Soviet Union are being systematically destroyed and only it can save Russia from moral degradation.

The party won 11.57 percent of the vote in 2007, when it also came in second to United Russia, the party of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The election resul ts humbled United Russia — which got 64.3 percent of the vote in 2007 and officially only 49.3 percent in December — and left the Communists with a tantalizing prospect of ascendance.

The Communists have been at this juncture before, challenging a weakened Boris Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential race. They failed to seize the advantage then, and this time is expected to be no different. On Saturday, they organized a rally just outside the Kremlin, promising a crowd of 5,000 or more. Though their red flags snapped smartly in the blowing snow, only a few hundred dedicated souls appeared, leaving the wide expanse of Manezh Square bare and windswept. Behind them, the spires of the State Historical Museum and the Resurrection Gate to Red Square once again bore the double-headed czarist eagle their predecessors had struggled so hard to bury.

Communist theory has always maintained that history is on its side, however, and so there was Gennady Zyuganov, the party’s leader and perennial presidential candidate, striding into a room packed with reporters last week with the easy smile of a hot new vote-getter.

“Merry Christmas,” he exclaimed, as if to remind Russians, who celebrated Christmas Jan. 7 and are still hearing Western carols in malls and coffee shops, that at least some Communists have gotten religion, despite the official atheism of the Soviet years.

The December election set off a paroxysm of anger among Russians who called it rigged, refusing to believe that Putin’s party had gotten even close to half the votes. Tired of years of what they have come to see as imperious and manipulative rule since Putin came to power in 2000, protesters took to the streets in demonstrations across the country, throwing into confusion what had been seen as Putin’s easy return to the presidency in March.

Zyuganov, who lost to Yeltsin in 1996, Putin in 2000 and Dmitry Medvedev in 2008 (he didn’t run in 2004), is seeking the presidency once more, buoyed by the election that gave his party 92 of the 450 seats in the state Duma. It had 57 before.

But he has a problem. Much of the election support has been attributed to protest votes against United Russia from people who went to the polls determined to back any opposition party.

Yuri Burminov cast his ballot for the Communists at a northwest Moscow polling station last month with great reluctance. The 70-year-old pensioner said he remembered communism all too well and was unenthusiastic about his choice. But he was disgusted by how country was being run.

“Those who are in power now are criminals,” he said. “For whom else could I vote?”

Nostalgia for the Soviet Union

The Communists rely on a small but cohesive core of members, who number 154,244, according to the Ministry of Justice, compared with United Russia’s 2,073,722 members. Many party members are in their 50s or 60s and dwell psychologically in the Soviet Union, said Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center for Political Technologies. The protest voters make less than ideal fellow travelers, concentrated as they are in the big cities among the urban middle class. It will not be easy to profit from the windfall, he said.

“The Communist Party will not do anything to lose their core votes,” Makarenko said. “The party’s ability to change is severely limited.”

Zyuganov likes the comfy status of official, unthreatening opposition, Makarenko said, so instead of heralding a bright, new future, the Dec. 4 election may well mark the party’s inexorable retreat toward what one of its early revolutionaries called “the dustbin of history.”

He is 67 and has run the party since it was formed in 1993, rising from the ashes of the Soviet Communist party, which Yeltsin banned in 1991.

So far, the party’s collective heads remain unturned from the established line despite the flattering attention of the parliamentary elections. They’re still talking nostalgically about the Soviet Union, planning the nationalization of major industries once they return to power and keeping a dashing photo of Stalin on the party Web site.

“They pushed through the [World Trade Organization],” Zyuganov said of the Putin team in a darkly accusative tone at the news conference, “and this will turn the country into a colony.”

Lack of new leadership

Dmitri Novikov, the party’s ideologist, arrived at the news conference with a copy of Pravda — the party paper whose name means truth, founded by Lenin in 1912 — tucked under his arm. He described nationalization as a good thing and said it would leave small- and medium-size businesses operating freely. “Nationalization will affect a small number of individuals,” he said, “but the entire country will benefit.”

Zyuganov has been adroit at fending off competitors, running the party unchallenged, said Nikolay Petrov, a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center. New leadership, which might have attracted broader support, has not developed. If Zyuganov couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity Yeltsin’s weakness presented 15 years ago, Petrov said, he has little chance of doing so now.

“He’s too old,” Petrov said. “He doesn’t have the political skills, and he doesn’t have political ambitions.”

In Russian elections for the Duma, voters cast their ballots for party lists, not individual deputies. Not so in presidential contests. On March 4, voters will judge Zyuganov, not his party.

Zyuganov said he expects to win. Russians, he said, are tired of all the lies. And he has never deceived them, he told reporters.

Earlier in the week, the All-Russian Center for Study of Public Opinion asked voters how they would cast their ballots if the presidential election were held Sunday. Fifty-two percent of respondents chose Putin; 11 percent picked Zyuganov.

He still has six weeks to change history.

Researcher Natasha Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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