Look Who’s Still Standing in Russia
By CLIFFORD J. LEVY
Published: December 9, 2007
LET’S say Russia’s beleaguered political opposition were to hold a casting call for a new leader. Here are a few characteristics that it should probably avoid: a physical resemblance to the provincial party bosses who used to bluster about tractor quotas in the glorious five-year plan; a talent for rousing only those Russians who have fond memories of Khrushchev; a past tendency toward remarks that might be construed as anti-Semitic.
The opposition might, in other words, not necessarily want to coalesce around a politician like Gennadi A. Zyuganov, head of Russia’s Communist Party. But these days, it does not have a lot of other choices.
With President Vladimir V. Putin’s party swaggering to an election landslide last week that wiped out the liberals in Parliament for the first time, Mr. Zyuganov’s party now seems to represent the only viable force remaining against the Kremlin.
They are the only ones left with a toehold in the government — these heirs to Lenin, Stalin and the other titans of the last century, these stalwarts who continue to brandish the hammer and sickle even as many younger Russians consider it more of a hokey T-shirt logo than a mighty symbol. It is a party that draws its backing largely from the elderly and others who feel left behind as the country has lurched toward capitalism.
It is a measure of the dismal state of the opposition that liberals — including icons like Vladimir A. Ryzhkov and Boris Y. Nemtsov who gained prominence in the 1990’s by pursuing a pro-Western, free-market philosophy — are making noises about an alliance with Mr. Zyuganov in a desperate attempt to bring down Mr. Putin.
Even some among the urban intelligentsia, who have typically viewed Mr. Zyuganov as a has-been beloved by misguided pensioners, nonetheless pulled the lever for his party last Sunday in hopes of bolstering a Putin rival.
While not disavowing his forebears, Mr. Zyuganov has tried in recent years to recast the party in the style of a Western European Communist or even Social Democratic one. The Russian Communists support private property, freedom of religion and multiparty democracy. In the recent campaign, they ran on the populist slogan “restoring lost values,” attacking business oligarchs and the gap in wealth in Russia.
Still, Mr. Zyuganov is such a warhorse, having run in elections since the Soviet Union’s end, that for the opposition to put his candidacy forward in the presidential election in March would be as if the Republicans in the United States were to unite around Bob Dole for president in 2008.
And despite the Communists’ moves to improve their image, it may be hard for the Russian electorate to get past the Zyuganov of old.
In the 1990’s, the Communists had the largest faction in Parliament, and voters these days tend to associate politicians from that era with political and economic disarray. Back then, Mr. Zyuganov assailed capitalism, and while Russians may now have mixed feelings about the post-Soviet age, they adore their big-box stores and cars and freedom to travel.
Mr. Zyuganov has also expressed ultranationalistic views — including suggesting that Zionists and Jews have too much influence in Russia and the world — that were anathema to liberals. No matter that lately he has held his tongue more, and said he is opposed to anti-Semitism.
For now, as the country looks toward the March election and questions intensify over who will succeed Mr. Putin (if he does step down when his term ends, as he has pledged), some liberals are suppressing their doubts and thinking about uniting with the Communists in order to run a candidate against whomever Mr. Putin favors.
Even if they do join forces, Mr. Putin’s favorite will most likely win. The Kremlin’s advantages were evident in last Sunday’s election results, with Mr. Putin’s party, United Russia, reaping 64.3 percent of the vote and the Communists finishing a distant second, with 11.6 percent.
Opposition parties and election monitors denounced the balloting as unfair and biased toward United Russia. The current Parliament has a handful of liberals like Mr. Ryzhkov, but all were defeated. Because of new election laws pushed by Mr. Putin, Mr. Ryzhkov could not even run.
Leonid N. Dobrokhotov, a Communist historian and informal adviser to Mr. Zyuganov, said the Communists were seeking to become a home for the well educated, noting that among its members of Parliament is Zhores I. Alferov, a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2000.
“I know that it looks very paradoxical to receive the support of liberals, but it is possible to explain — the Communists have become the only democratic party in the Parliament,” Mr. Dobrokhotov said. “This is a tremendous change from the past. We are not the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.”
Mr. Ryzhkov did not exactly agree. He said the Communists have in recent years usually reached an accommodation with the Kremlin in Parliament, declining to oppose most of Mr. Putin’s initiatives in return for patronage and other spoils. He contended that if Mr. Zyuganov continues on that path, the party will face extinction because the older voters who are its base will die off and younger voters will have little reason to support it.
“The second strategy is more risky and creative, and it is for the Communists to join the other opposition forces, even the liberals and other left forces, to create a people’s front for democracy,” Mr. Ryzhkov said. “It would be a wide front of opposition against Putin’s authoritarianism and his police state, and it will be something entirely new.”
Mr. Ryzhkov, by the way, would not say whether he would back Mr. Zyuganov for president. He said he had another candidate in mind — himself.
Then again, these are the same people who thought a referendum, an open and free vote, on issues they disagreed with equated with Communism in Venezuela (and only supported Chavez's democracy when a vote went their way).
What all of this misses are the real problems in Russia, such as the decrease in population, an aging workforce, and over dependence on the energy sector as the primary means of economic growth. Or how about Russia's main export, outside of oil, which is armaments? How often do you read stories on these issues anymore, compared to, say, an ex-FSB agent defector who is microwaved in Great Britain?