Russia's Communists: the paper tigers of the opposition

Twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Communist Party is enjoying a mini-revival as a channel for popular discontent with the government. But its leadership is too rooted in the past and concerned with retaining control of the party to exploit this advantage, says Vladimir Gelman

If one were to select superlatives to characterize Russia’s political parties, the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) would earn the distinction of being the most boring of all. For, despite its steady presence on Russia’s political scene, the party is singularly unable to impress — with its ideological baggage, novelty catchwords, charismatic leaders, or any visible activity in- or out-side parliament. Instead, the Communists continue to spout lazy riffs on the tired clichés of Soviet officialese. For nearly twenty years their leaders have been second-rate Soviet-era bureaucrats, and their criticism of the authorities limited to empty slogans about ‘anti-national’ regimes. The CPRF has failed to offer Russia’s elites or the general public a sufficiently attractive alternative to the ruling party.

Nevertheless, as demonstrated by the Levada Centre surveys, the CPRF has enjoyed steady support among the population over the past few years – some 15-20% – and virtually nobody doubts that the party will retain its faction in the next state Duma.

'In the run-up to the forthcoming 4 December election, a number of public figures have appealed to the people to cast their vote for any party except for ‘United Russia’ and their appeals have worked in the CPRF’s favour. The Communists have also been the main beneficiaries of the growing mood of opposition.'

Of course, these figures are very different from 1996 when the party was flourishing: then the party and its allies held nearly half the seats in parliament, and party leader Gennady Zyuganov was regarded as a favourite for president.

How, then, did the Russian Communist party get into the situation it finds itself in today and what can we expect of it in the future?

Into a cul-de-sac

The Communists went through difficult times after the Soviet regime collapsed. Boris Yeltsin’s 1991 decrees officially banned Communist Party activities on Russian territory, while public opinion and the press held the Communists responsible for the country’s assorted ills, past and present. Their position was further weakened by their defeat in the 1992-1993 conflict between the President and Russia’s Supreme Soviet (in which the Communist faction played a significant role). Unsurprisingly, politicians who tried to revive the party by putting it on a new footing found themselves facing the acute problem of having to choose a political strategy. Initially, their caution bore fruit.

After it succeeded in upholding the Communist Party’s right to existence in Russia’s Constitutional Court in 1992, a group led by Gennady Zyuganov formed the core of a reconstituted and officially sanctioned Communist Party of the Russian Federation in February 1993. Following the letter of the law, the CPRF took no part in the street skirmishes that flared up in the autumn of 1993.

Oct_rev_an

Old communist rituals have not died. Every year CPRF leaders celebrate the anniversary of the 1917 revolution by bringing flowers to the Lenin Mausoleum and Red Square.

They exploited their broad network of party cells and numerous local activists in nearly all Russia’s regions and achieved considerable success in the election for the State Duma in 1993 (11.6% of the votes and 45 seats in the Duma) and particularly in 1995 (22.2% of the votes and 157 seats), confirming their monopoly as the country’s main opposition party. Other communist parties or movements either became satellites of the CPRF or were marginalized. Widespread disenchantment with government policies in Russia accompanying the profound and drawn-out economic decline of the 1990s paved the way for the Communists to take (or rather, to resume) power through the electoral process.

Nevertheless, brutal opposition (right up to the threat of a coup) from President Boris Yeltsin’s team, and the CPRF’s own radicalism, which many Russians found off-putting, rendered the Communists incapable of winning presidential elections. The party – which included several different currents – demonstrated no particular ideological consistency in choosing its mission statement, but its overall motto could be summed up as ‘Back in the USSR’. The Communists cleverly exploited the nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ of the Soviet era that flourished within a sizeable section of Russia’s population, but they failed to present an alternative, positive programme.

Moreover, in the 1990s the CPRF had to do its utmost to mobilize activists and supporters in order to maintain its status as the only ‘genuine’ opposition party (as distinct, for example, from the Liberal Democrats [LDPR] or Yabloko), as well as its organisational unity.  High-profile actions, such as the denunciation of the Belovezha Accords in March 1996 or the attempt to impeach Russia’s President in May 1999 served the same purpose. Although this approach did help the Communists to hold on to their ‘core’ supporters, they failed to gain the support of the majority of the electorate, not to mention the new ruling class – politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats – who perceived the CPRF solely as a party of the past.

Join_party_poster

CPRF poster “Time to join the party”. According to Levada Center surveys, the Communist Party  has enjoyed steady support among 15-20 % of the Russian population during recent years.

Not surprisingly, in August 1996 the CPRF leaders changed their strategy, officially declaring their intention to  ‘grow into power’. Some party activists joined the national government and regional administrations, while the Communists in the Duma made some rather successful deals with the Kremlin on a number of policy issues, at the same time systematically refusing to take any decisions that would have changed the political status quo. This was the case with:

  • the abandoned attempt to force a vote of no confidence in Viktor Chernomyrdin’s cabinet in the Duma in autumn 1997;
  • the confirmation, under pressure from the Kremlin, of Sergey Kirienko as Prime Minister in April 1998; and
  • the doomed impeachment of Yeltsin (May 1998) when some CPRF’s own deputies failed to support the measure.

In 1999 the CPRF’s main goal was to hold on to positions previously gained, i.e. to maintain the status quo, and their election campaign was run in this spirit. Quite conceivably, the Communists hoped that, after an endless string of political and economic crises in the country, power would simply drop into their laps. However, more sceptical commentators noted that the party’s leaders were not really ready to fight for key levers of control in the country, apparently fully content with the existing state of affairs.

‘The CPRF’s current position as a ‘niche’ opposition party is, to some extent,  convenient for the presidential administration: it doesn’t pose a serious challenge to the government and acts as a channel for dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the country. It also suits the party leaders, because it allows them to retain their monopoly in the narrowed opposition field in Russia’s political market.’

Although these measures (or rather, the lack thereof) did bring the CPRF some tactical dividends, in strategic terms they resulted in a defeat. The Communists did slightly better in the 1999 general election (24.3% of the vote, 88 Duma seats), but they lost their status as the leading party in parliament and could no longer pursue their do-nothing policy.

The CPRF initially tried to assume the role of junior partner to the ruling group, signing an agreement with the ‘Unity’ faction on sharing a number of parliamentary posts and keeping the post of Duma Speaker. However, the CPRF emerged from this with its potential weakened and the advantages of the deal proved only symbolic – since 2000 non-communists have enjoyed a constitutional majority in parliament with over half of the seats taken by the ruling party and its allies. Since all major decisions in the Duma could be passed without communist support, the CPRF’s role became purely cosmetic.

Once the CPRF tried to return to active opposition, taking a stand against a number of government legislative initiatives, punishment was swift to follow. In the spring of 2002 ‘United Russia’ initiated a reassignment of committee chair positions, ousting the Communists. Some CPRF officials, such as the then Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov, who opted to retain their posts in exchange for loyalty to the Kremlin, were expelled from the party.

At the same time, after 2000 the CPRF’s electoral support started to decline both at federal and at regional level. The communist defeat in the 2003 Duma election brought this process to its logical conclusion. In the election campaign the Communists were the Kremlin’s main target: every trick in the box was deployed against them, from putting forward alternative ballots aimed at splitting the party’s electorate to a negative media campaign and pressure on CPRF sympathizers among regional governors and business folk. The CPRF, on the other hand, stuck to its previous strategy of maintaining the status quo, keeping its ideological goals and organisational structure almost unchanged.

A life after death?

In the 00s the CPRF was faced with several serious challenges. Firstly, while not trying to get rid of the Communists altogether, the Kremlin did not abandon its attempts to marginalize them politically. The CPRF fought off several attempts to orchestrate a split within the party by getting rid of the ‘dissidents’ in their midst (for example, former Deputy Speaker of the State Duma Gennady Semigin was expelled from the CPRF and his supporters were removed from party positions). In 2007 ‘Just Russia’, a tame left-of-centre party was established with Kremlin support in order to siphon off the votes of some CPRF supporters.

Secondly, the profile of the party’s electorate began to change. While in the 1990s the CPRF’s electorate typically consisted of uneducated and low-income elderly people living in small towns and villages, in the first decade after 2000 the Communists won increasing support among younger and better-educated city dwellers. As the motto ‘Back in the USSR’ came to be increasingly associated with the party of power, ‘United Russia’, rather than with the CPRF, the Communists could not (and did not want to) offer anything new to their voters.

Thirdly, the realization was beginning to dawn within the party itself that conserving the status quo was not a way forward. Rejecting any changes (which inevitably would have led to a change of party leadership), Zyuganov and his allies in the CPRF leadership tried to cling on to the control of the organization at any cost. They were ruthless in getting rid of promising young politicians as well as experienced regional leaders, accusing them of failing to toe the party line. Even grassroots party membership visibly declined in this period. This political and ideological immobility put the party into hibernation over a long political winter. By systematically suppressing any attempt to modernize the CPRF in terms of organisation, ideology and forms of activity, the leadership deprived the party of its political prospects: having locked itself into a tight ‘ghetto’ of supporters, the CPRF has become Kremlin’s harmless sparring partner in Russia’s electoral arena.

Nevertheless, ever since the number of officially registered parties in the country was reduced to seven, the CPRF has become de facto the only opposition force represented in parliament, turning into a natural haven for politicians and voters who oppose the country’s political regime or the government’s policies.

Zyuganov

Gennady Zyuganov, the old Soviet apparatchik, has been the inflatable CPRF leader for nearly 20 years. He nearly won the presidential election in 1996: it is now thought his defeat was most probably engineered by mass fraud during the election.   

While this did not bring the party great dividends (in the 2007 Duma election the party gained only 11.6% of the vote and 57 seats, while in regional elections between 2008 and 2011 the CPRF averaged 16.8%), it has nevertheless saved them from further decline. Moreover, in a number of recent cases, CPRF-nominated candidates in municipal elections have beaten ‘United Russia’ candidates (for example, in recent mayoral elections in Irkutsk and Bratsk and in the elections for the Tver City Duma), although some of the successful candidates joined the party of power after being elected.

In the run-up to the forthcoming 4 December election, a number of public figures have appealed to the people to cast their vote for any party except for ‘United Russia’ and their appeals have worked in the CPRF’s favour. The Communists have also been the main beneficiaries of the growing mood of opposition. This is not because they are so attractive in the eyes of the electorate but rather because all other significant parties have proved to be overt or covert Kremlin instruments, while the CPRF has managed to maintain at least a degree of organisational and ideological autonomy from the powers-that-be. The CPRF’s current position as a ‘niche’ opposition party is, to some extent,  convenient for the presidential administration: it doesn’t pose a serious challenge to the government and acts as a channel for dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs in the country. It also suits the party leaders, because it allows them to retain their monopoly in the narrowed opposition field in Russia’s political market.

To sum up, one might say that in the nascent electoral authoritarianism of the 00s the CPRF managed to survive in Russia as a legitimate, small – though not marginal – party. The price for this was that any ambition to achieve political goals, apart from maintaining the party’s current status, had to be abandoned.

But do Russia’s Communists have a future and if so, what kind? If Russia’s electoral authoritarianism is preserved beyond 2011-2012, the party’s level of support might remain unchanged or might even increase in the absence of competition in the political market. In that case, we probably shouldn’t expect any changes in the CPRF’s political strategy either – at least until a generational change takes place in the party leadership.

‘Although the communist slogans of egalitarianism and state regulation of the economy have gone down well with the electorate, this demand is unlikely to be satisfied by the party’s current leadership. Russia’s Communists are more likely to share the fate of their comrades in Ukraine, where the Communist Party, though present on the political scene, plays only a secondary role and is in steep decline.’

It is far more difficult to assess the chances of Russia’s Communists if and when the country’s political system is democratized. Although the communist slogans of egalitarianism and state regulation of the economy have gone down well with the electorate, this demand is unlikely to be satisfied by the party’s current leadership. Russia’s Communists are more likely to share the fate of their comrades in Ukraine, where the Communist Party, though present on the political scene, plays only a secondary role and is in steep decline.

The experience of a number of East European countries suggests that former ruling communist parties have managed to turn themselves into a viable component of post-communist democracies only if they were sufficiently quick to reorganize. Russia’s Communists, having missed their chance in the 1990s, and having refused to change in the first decade of this century, remain in a cul-de-sac of political development, exploiting yesterday’s myths and failing to offer the country an agenda fit for tomorrow’s needs.

About the author

Professor of political science at the European University in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is the author of 17 books and more than 120 articles on Russian and post Soviet politics.

Read On

Communist Party of the Russian Federation, web site (in English, in Russian)