Russian Election: Communist Gains?

Even as the economy booms, more Russians seem to be looking to the state for some social guarantees: A scenario tailor-made for the Communists?

The last parliamentary elections in Russia, in 2003, were notable for the way the parties competed to play the nationalist card. But this year leftist slogans seem to be the trumps, even for those parties with no history of leaning to the left.

The rhetoric has included promises to increase wages and pensions, to provide affordable housing, and to reduce housing maintenance costs. The government has even persuaded retailers to cap their prices on some basic foodstuffs in the face of rising inflation, a move that undermines Russia's claim to run a market economy.

If the parties are just responding to a growing appetite for government largesse and economic controls, it is the Communist Party that would seem best-positioned to take advantage of the current mood. Semyon Borzenko, head of the analytical section of the Communist Party faction in the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, foresees the party picking up a hefty increase in support.

"In December, many people are going to vote for the Communists for the first time," Borzenko said. "Russia is sobering up. We've seen our support among young people growing. These are people who didn't experience the anti-Communist brainwashing of the early perestroika period in the 1980s and who have made an independent decision."

Borzenko said the party's younger supporters are disappointed by the state's failure to create equal career opportunities for everyone and are appalled by Russia's high level of corruption. He says they can see that "to have a winning ticket in life is to belong to one of the state clans."

"In their eyes, the current regime personifies corruption," he added. "They're looking for a reliable alternative, and the liberals apparently don't sound credible enough."

Yury Korgunyuk, a specialist on political parties at the Moscow-based think-tank INDEM, said President Vladimir Putin's recent decision to top the list of the United Russia Party's candidates for the Duma could further strengthen the Communists' hand by leaching support away from Just Russia, a pro-Kremlin opposition party.

"Putin's decision to lead United Russia into the elections was a fatal blow to Just Russia, and technically speaking the Communists may gobble up some of that slice of the electoral cake," Korgunyuk said. "And the recent surge in retail prices, accompanied by calls for a return to a state-controlled economy, may also bring some extra votes the Communists' way."

Since the fall the Berlin Wall in 1989, the Communists have been absent from the political scene in most of Central and Eastern Europe, whereas in Russia the party has survived, albeit in reduced circumstances. The Communist Party has won seats in the State Duma at each of the elections in Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And in a number of the regional parliaments it holds up to a third of the seats.

The differing fates of the Eastern European and Russian communist parties are down to economics, Korgunyuk said.

"Russia still maintains huge spending on defense, which other Eastern European countries do not," he said. "At the same time, small businesses account only for 10 to 15 percent of the Russian economy, while in the rest of Eastern Europe they form the essential core of the economy, between 50 and 70 percent of it. As a result, a substantial proportion of Russians feel dependent on the state, hence a continuing degree of support for the Communists."

Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee, a Moscow-based nonprofit organization, thinks the Communist Party may win a large enough share of the protest vote to regain the strength it enjoyed in the Duma prior to the 2003 elections, when its number of seats dropped from 113 to 51.

In looking for the source of the Communist Party's resilience, Kabanov sees the survival of the Soviet mentality among many Russian people.

"Unfortunately, historical memory in many Russians is very short, and too many people in the country don't directly associate the Communists with their history of repression and with Stalin's gulags," Kabanov said. "Instead, people talk about the world's deepest and best metro system and other industrial achievements."

It doesn't help, Kabanov said, that liberal parties offer a pale alternative. "The liberal parties have failed to challenge the authorities strongly enough. No wonder that so many people now refuse to see them as credible and politically capable, and are even ready to vote for the Communists purely for the sake of diversity."

Kabanov's prediction of a strong showing by the Communists is supported by a recent nationwide poll conducted in late October by the St. Petersburg-based Agency for Social Information.

It showed the Communist Party running in third place with 12.5 percent support among those polled. It put Just Russia only a little way ahead, with 14 percent support. Putin's United Russia was way ahead with 57 percent. But the agency's head, Roman Mogilevsky, stressed that voters' preferences may well change now that the actual campaigning has begun.

In fourth place behind the Communists was the Liberal Democratic Party, backed by 10 percent. Further back were the Union of Right Forces, with 4.3 percent, and the liberal party Yabloko, favored by 4.1 percent.

At least 48 percent of Russians are expected to vote in December, down from the 55 percent who voted in the 2003 Duma elections. Mogilevsky said turnout is expected to be no more than 51 percent in Moscow and 44 percent in St. Petersburg.


Communist rule ended nearly two decades ago, but some are clearly reluctant to say goodbye to it. Although dozens of statues of Lenin and other communist leaders have been removed, many others still stand on the streets of Russian cities, as well as at factories and public institutions. And Soviet-themed restaurants do a flourishing trade.

Under the communists, Valery Ronkin, a St. Petersburg human rights advocate, spent seven years in prison and three years in exile for "anti-Soviet activities." He is now with Memorial, a group devoted to commemorating the millions of victims of the communist era. He says the stamp of communist rule is still imprinted on the country, largely due to the reluctance of Russia's current rulers to confront the country's past.

"Those who have no family experience of the gulag or who have no other personal connection with it will remain indifferent, despite all our efforts," he said.

Presumably those are the people who may be tempted to vote Communist this time. But how exactly will the party try to mobilize such support?

St. Petersburg-based journalist and political observer Yelena Ragozina notes that the Communists pride themselves on not spending much money on billboards and other costly methods, focusing instead on street campaigning.

"They have consistently cultivated the image of a genuine people's party," Ragozina said. "The funds available to the Communists don't even remotely compare with the resources of United Russia and Just Russia. And the media coverage the Communists get is minuscule. But they are trying -- and quite successfully -- to make it work to their political advantage, and to play the part of 'a true opposition.' "

In contrast to the early 1990s, when the core of the Communists' voters were mainly the armies of poverty-stricken pensioners and residents of rural areas, the party claims it has now begun to win broader support in the larger cities.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov says his party's pledge to reverse some of the most controversial measures of the post-Soviet period, such as allowing private companies to exploit Russia's rich natural resources, has struck a chord with voters.

He cites the results of local elections held earlier this year in 14 regions of Russia as evidence of a Communist revival.

"In the previous Moscow City Duma we didn't have a faction but now we do," Zyuganov said. "In St. Petersburg, the party won 18 percent of the seats, a striking 100 percent increase since the previous elections. In Omsk, Siberia, we won over 30 percent of seats in the parliament."

Some experts attribute the Communists' successes in March to the fact that other opposition parties were stricken from the ballots in several regions, but that does not explain why so many people opted for the Communists rather than staying home.

"The truth is that Stalin, while he was alive, was enormously popular, and not without reason," said Alexander Krauze, who is in charge of ideology in the Communist Party in St. Petersburg. "When he was in power there was no unemployment. He also banished illiteracy in the world's largest country.

"I personally share the view of Winston Churchill, who pointed out that Stalin took over a country in clogs but handed over to his successors a country with an H-bomb." he said. "However there is no unity on that issue, even within the party. Many Communists view Stalin with utter disgust."

His words are echoed by some voters. "Let's not get too deep! Back in the USSR everyone felt secure and confident about their future," Sergei, a St. Petersburg military officer in his 50s, said. "It's all about making an effort to achieve social equality -- in the sense not of everyone being poor but of nobody being left to starve."

Sergei's daughter Marina agreed. "When you're young and strong and healthy you often don't care what the ruling party is," she said. "But if you get sick or retire, then social guarantees and things like accessible health care begin to matter. And these are the things that nobody has been able to provide to Russians since the days of the USSR."

A recent poll by the Kremlin-aligned Public Opinion Foundation found that 42 percent of Russians associate Stalin with "dictatorship, repression, and the Gulag chain of concentration camps." However as many as 32 percent associated him with "unequivocal orderliness, industrial success, and the pride of a great empire."

Such sentiments, mixed with a continuing nostalgia for an era when the Soviet Union repelled Hitler, became a superpower, and made massive scientific and technological advances, could help to make the Communist Party a force to be reckoned with on Election Day.

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