Russia's comeback Communists

Foiled in its bid to oust Yeltsin, party retains public support. Next

Despite its latest drubbing at the hands of President Boris Yeltsin, Russia's perennially bumbling Communist Party appears to have bright election-year prospects.

"Most of the Communists don't really feel that they've suffered a defeat, and they have their own good reasons to be smug," says Lilia Shevtsova, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "In some ways they are failure-proof."

For many in the West, Russia's Communist Party remains a kind of bogy-man stalking the post-Soviet political landscape, but it is actually a pale and flickering shadow of the organization that ran the Soviet Union for 74 years.

Marxism-Leninism has given way to a hodgepodge of nationalism, welfare state populism, and nostalgia for the good old days of Soviet social order and superpowerdom.

"This is a party that came back having learned nothing and forgotten nothing," says Martin Shakkum, president of the social-democratic Reform Foundation in Moscow.

"They will probably take no account of their dreadful political blunders, and go into the next elections blaming everyone else for the country's troubles," he says. "And it will work well for them."

Elections for the Duma, parliament's lower house, are slated for December.

It's hard to view the party's recent performance as anything but disastrous. Two weeks ago, President Yeltsin fired left-leaning Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, at a single stroke canceling all the gains the Communists made at the Kremlin's expense amid last fall's financial collapse and political turmoil.

The Communists, who along with their allies control 211 seats in the 450-seat Duma, vowed revenge for the sacking of a government - post-Soviet Russia's first - that had been appointed through consultation and compromise with parliament.

They had lobbied hard for the support of small factions and independents. But the Communists flubbed a simple arithmetic test when they went ahead with a long-planned vote to impeach Mr. Yeltsin on five charges of treason and other high crimes.

Though the Communists loudly predicted victory on at least one of the points, all fell far short of the constitutionally needed two-thirds majority.

A red-faced Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, explained the result was "a moral victory."

Last Wednesday the Communists meekly marched into the Duma and overwhelmingly endorsed Yeltsin's choice for a new prime minister, former Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin.

Mr. Stepashin, a longtime Kremlin loyalist and career policeman, even allowed himself a black joke at the Duma's expense: "All those who voted for me may lower their hands and step away from the wall," he quipped.

The Communists used a weekend meeting of their party's ruling central committee not to evaluate the collapse of their parliamentary tactics but to warn Yeltsin against taking any "unconstitutional measures" to close down the Duma or cancel the upcoming election.

The Communist Party will do everything necessary to "stop the lunatics and criminals who are ready to throw the country into mass unrest," Mr. Zyuganov said.

But does all this spell oblivion for the tough-talking Communists as they head into the fall election campaign? Not if recent history is any guide, say analysts.

"The Communists are very likely to increase their share of the popular vote substantially, for reasons that have little to do with their actual performance in the Duma," says Igor Kurayev, a political expert at the Institute of Social and Historical Studies, an independent Moscow-based think tank. "In fact, being mauled by the Kremlin has always helped them in the past."

The Communist Party, re-founded in 1993 after Russia's Constitutional Court overturned a post-Soviet ban on it, has been humiliated in almost every attempt to compel the Kremlin to share power. Yet with each display of political impotence and ideological confusion, the party's strength has increased.

After Yeltsin blasted his left-wing opponents out of the old Supreme Soviet with tanks and troops in 1993, the Communists swept into the newly created Duma with 12.4 percent of the popular vote. In elections two years later, 22.3 percent of Russians backed the party, despite its stumbling and lackluster performance in parliament.

A survey conducted by Moscow University's Public Opinion Center in April - before the impeachment fiasco - found 25 percent of Russians ready to back the Communists in December.

Sergei Tumanov, a researcher at the center, says the Communists have a hard core of millions of voters, mostly elderly people who associate the party with a simpler, more secure time.

"However, the majority of Communist voters have no special allegiance. They are protest voters who choose the party the authorities hate the most," he says.

Communist fortunes have improved as Russia's economic hinterland has fallen into poverty. The decline may be accelerating, with the the government reporting a 4 percent drop in gross domestic product for the first quarter of 1999 and Russia's Higher School for Economics warning Russians' real income is down 30 percent from last year.

"If people could see some improvement in life maybe their view of the world, and hence their voting patterns, would change," says Mr. Tumanov.

"But in the present dire situation they dream of a strong, paternalistic state to help them carry their burdens. And this means the Communists will be with us for the foreseeable future."

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