Russian Communists Strive to Reverse Fast, Steep Decline
Party Leader Faces Stiff Opposition at Upcoming Congress
By Susan B. Glasser
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 20, 2004; Page A21
MOSCOW -- The Communists were in trouble, and party leader Gennady Zyuganov knew it. Last December, in the days before the party's worst election defeat since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Zyuganov accused the Kremlin of embarking on a "war of extermination" against Russia's Communist Party.
Today, as the party absorbs the full meaning of resounding parliamentary and presidential campaign losses and the disappearance of more than half of its electorate over the past four years, many leading members and outside analysts say the only question is whether the Communist Party has already been destroyed or is merely on the verge of destruction.
Zyuganov insisted in an interview that he will do what is necessary to reinvent the party of Vladimir Lenin for the era of President Vladimir Putin, from backing a "young, energetic team" for the party leadership to creating a more aggressive opposition to the Kremlin. But increasingly, vocal rivals are demanding his ouster at the party's upcoming congress. If Zyuganov remains in charge, it will be "death for us," one of them said.
The internal power struggle suggests the magnitude of the crisis for a party that has gone from the most powerful organized political force in Russia during the first decade after the Soviet collapse to the brink of political irrelevance.
The Communists survived Boris Yeltsin's presidency by grudgingly accepting private property and capturing the vast protest electorate that was unhappy with the sweeping changes in Russia. Putin hasn't openly clashed with them as Yeltsin did, but his Kremlin has worked methodically to destroy the party and appropriate its most potent issues.
"I'm not sure whether the party will manage to transform itself in time," said Ilya Ponomaryov, the activist leader of the party's youth wing. Ponomaryov said the election disaster could turn positive if it forced the party to change. But he said he feared that Zyuganov was unlikely to agree to the major strategic shift necessary to save the party.
"Zyuganov is slowly, slowly with a lot of compromises coming to the same conclusion as us," Ponomaryov said, "but he's very afraid of drastic action."
Igor Bunin, director of the Center for Political Technologies, called the Communist Party "a traditionalist, ideological party that it is not possible to renew" after the blows of the last few months. "This is a deep crisis that the Communist Party cannot escape," he said.
Just a year ago, the Communists routinely commanded a die-hard 20 percent or more of the Russian electorate in polls and the party had the largest faction in the parliament, giving it a blocking stake in Kremlin policy proposals. Many assumed the party would gradually lose power as its Soviet-era loyalists died off, but few predicted the Communists' collapse would happen in a matter of months.
The party is down to just 10 percent support in polls, and Zyuganov commands backing from just 2 percent of voters surveyed. The parliamentary faction was reduced from 113 a year ago to 51, and the party's little-known standard-bearer, Nikolai Kharitonov, secured just 13 percent in March against Putin after a campaign whose most notable act was its talking-dog commercial.
"The voters just walked out on their preference for Communists," said pollster Alexander Oslon, who advises the Kremlin.
The resulting struggle for control of the party has brought the most serious challenge to Zyuganov's leadership in his 11 years as head of the reborn Communist Party, which emerged from the Soviet Union's breakup in 1991 and is known by its Russian initials KPRF. Many party veterans and political analysts expect Zyuganov to beat back the challenge when the party congress meets here July 3, but they see the dispute as emblematic of the party's inability to reinvent itself.
Zyuganov's longtime deputy, Valentin Kuptsov, recently announced plans to quit, complaining of "miscalculations and mistakes" and saying Zyuganov had to go. "The time has come to introduce new men into positions of power," he said at the regional party meeting where he quit.
The week before that, six party members released a manifesto attacking Zyuganov and claimed backing from 40 of 100 Central Committee members, blaming the party leader for strategic mistakes in the campaign and failure to stand up to Putin. Zyuganov's team has fought back, with the party leadership calling the six "dissidents" tools of the Kremlin and claiming they want to reorganize the Communist Party "into a petit bourgeois party."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company