Russia's communist evolution
The party casts itself as democracy's defender in a vote set for Sunday.
Russia's Communist Party, which proudly bears the hammer-and-sickle mantle of its Soviet predecessor, has recently discovered a surprising new mission: to champion democracy and civil society against the encroachments of an increasingly authoritarian Kremlin.Skip to next paragraph
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"It may sound ironic, but in today's life the KPRF (Communist Party) has become the main defender of all those ideals that were declared by the democrats in 1991," when the USSR collapsed, says Viktor Peshkov, a leading Communist Duma deputy and candidate in next Sunday's parliamentary elections. "We stand for democracy, pluralism, freedom of the press, and private property while the state is moving to limit all of those social gains."
Used to winning the votes of the quarter or so of Russians nostalgic for Soviet times, the decade-old KPRF now finds itself fighting for its political life against the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party, a new rival created by the state to back President Vladimir Putin. Recent opinion polls suggest the Communists' support may be collapsing, especially in conservative rural Russia.
United Russia's tactic is to seduce the communists' traditional constituency by appearing more like the old Soviet Communist Party than the KPRF does. The pro-Kremlin party has stolen the Communists' anti-big business slogans, its posters feature Soviet-era icons like dictator Joseph Stalin and cosmonaut Yury Gagarin, and its attack ads slam the KPRF for including rich businessmen among its candidates.
Experts suggest that the KPRF's predicament is largely due to its failure to reject its Soviet past and wholeheartedly embrace modern, European-style social democratic ideas. But many also worry that a KPRF defeat Sunday could demolish the last serious check on resurgent Kremlin power.
"If the Communist Party disappears, we will be left with a virtual one-party system," says Alexander Yurin, director of the Institute for the Development of Electoral Systems, an independent think tank. "The KPRF is needed by society, if only because it represents the only systematic opposition."
An opinion poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency in mid-November found United Russia far ahead with 32.7 percent support, compared to the KPRF's 14.3 percent. The two liberal opposition parties, Union of Right Forces and Yabloko, trailed behind with 7.5 percent and 5.2 percent respectively. Conducted among 6,000 adults in three cities, that survey drew doubts from many experts. Still, a more methodical nationwide poll in early November by the independent VTsIOM-A agency found Communist support at 23 percent, about 6 points behind United Russia.
Reestablished a decade ago after the USSR ended, the Communist Party has coasted to a No. 2 finish in virtually every presidential and parliamentary election since then, largely on the strength of its famous name. The core supporters are pensioners loyal to their Soviet roots, jobless industrial workers, rural poor, and, in recent years, urban middle-class professionals whose hopes were crushed in wild post-Soviet swings such as the 1998 financial crash.